We’re all very aware of the negative impact that plastics, specifically plastic packaging, have in our life, but let’s look at the numbers again, shall we? Around 91 percent of plastic packaging ends up in landfills, oceans, or elsewhere in our environment, secreting harmful chemicals each day. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an estimated eight million tons of plastic ends up in oceans each year, wreaking havoc on ecosystems, the food chain, and human health.
“Let’s migrate to glass bottles, then” is a common conclusion in the thought process after acknowledging the harm of plastic.
The thing is, making glass –and shipping it– has a very high carbon footprint. Let’s take the case of wine making, for example. The Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) estimates that glass bottle production and shipping makes up for 51 percent to 68 percent of wine’s total carbon footprint. Yes, glass is a pretty good material, especially for beverages because of how well it preserves them, but it needs incredibly high heat to be made, and tons of fuel and plastic packaging to be shipped in order to prevent any cracks.
So what’s the next alternative? Aluminium cans are lighter and less delicate, so they don’t need as much packaging to be shipped, but aluminum production creates plenty of greenhouse gases. Enter: flexible packaging. A study conducted by the German-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (ifeu) showed how resource efficient lightweight flexible packaging is. “When comparing the environmental impacts of different types of packaging for pasta sauces and olives in the European market, flexible packaging was found to be the better alternative compared to traditional materials such as glass jars and steel cans. This was due to less energy required in production and transport, ultimately leading to fewer carbon emissions”
But what, exactly is this flexible packaging, and who is doing it? Huhtamäki Oyj, based in Finland. With over 100 years of history and keeping true to their Nordic heritage, Huhtamäki operates in 36 countries and 81 sites around the world, serving local brands across Europe, Asia, Oceania, and South America. They provide lightweight and flexible high quality molded fiber and paperboard packaging to quick service and fast casual restaurants, coffee shops and vending operators as well as egg, fruit and vegetable producers. Their mission? To be the first choice in sustainable packaging solutions globally, through the use of their innovative products that ensure hygiene and safety for food on-the-shelf and food on-the-go. Huhtamaki produces flexible packaging materials, pouches and labels for food and drink, packaging for coffee, pet food, barrier, and pharmaceutical products.
According to the company, they “believe in protecting food, people and the planet and enabling wellbeing and convenience for people around the world”. Today, approximately 70 percent of their raw materials are renewable and 98 percent of all fibers are either recycled or derived from sustainably managed sources. However, the Finnish company is committed to having more than 80% of its raw materials be either renewable or recycled by 2030.
Huhtamaki won the award for most innovative bio-based material and product on the market for the 13th time in 2020 at the annual International Conference on Bio-based Materials, organized by nova-Institute. The material awarded was the Huhtamaki Fresh, developed in partnership with Södra and Saladworks, and funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 initiative. “Fresh is a disposable food tray for ready-to-eat meals that has been in the UK market since 2019. The product is made from natural wood fibers which are sourced from FSC certified and renewable Nordic forests. Fresh is recyclable after use and certified for home composting. It is the natural alternative to black plastic meal trays, and both oven proof and microwavable”.
Huhtamaki also presented their FutureSmart paper cup, which has a renewable bio-based coating that is recycled. The reason why they developed this flexible beverage packaging is because when a paper cup is recycled, the carbon footprint falls by a significant 54 percent. They claim that when a traditional paper cup is swapped for a FutureSmart paper cup, the footprint falls by 64 percent.
Most recently, Huhtamaki designed a new sundae cup for McDonald’s in partnership with Havi, made from 100% wood fiber and without any plastic additives, to be used throughout Europe initially. The wood fiber is sourced from sustainably managed forests. It’s formulated to be used for ice cream and the broad range of sauces and toppings that McDonald’s offers.
Neal McCone, Category Director QSR and Speciality Coffee for Huhtamaki Fiber Foodservice Europe, Asia, Oceania, said, “The product needed to be engineered to very high performance tolerances, demonstrate superior functionality and organoleptic properties and also provide the consumer with a highly evolved level of sensory perception in use. We see this product not as a ‘good replacement for plastic’, but as a fantastic sustainable design and a beautiful piece of packaging in its own right. For the tree fiber, we are utilising efficient manufacturing processes that reprocess all scrap and wastage and ending with a consumer and operator validated package that can be recovered in existing paper streams, have the high-value material within it captured, and then recycled”
McCone also stated: “We need to develop independent scientific comparison tools to allow transparent validation of the choices made in the name of true sustainability that take all the positive and negative parameters into consideration so that consumer trust can be built upon these new packaging and system directions. So for me, the key challenges go beyond the obvious complexity, infrastructure development and cost considerations associated with establishing new manufacturing categories and focus on fully educating ourselves in the industry, legislators and decision-makers at country level and ultimately consumers to make sure we take the best possible decisions on the journey to truly sustainable packaging.”
Flexible packaging all over the world is coming at a great time for consumer adoption. According to a 2015 Nielsen survey, seventy-three percent of consumers say they are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, a number that rises to 83 percent among younger buyers.