Video: Wageningen University & Research
In the fight against plastic pollution, food producers are increasingly experimenting with sustainable packaging. But when is sustainable packaging truly sustainable? And what if the new packaging leads to food being thrown away more often? Esther Hogeveen, project manager at Wageningen University & Research, knows just how difficult these questions are. A new tool gives answers.
Plastic production from fossil raw materials has a major impact on the environment. Moreover, some of the plastic ends up in nature after use, where it can harm plants, animals and people. To reduce the burden on our environment, we must use less plastic. That is why governments are trying to eliminate single-use plastic. The call from consumers for less plastic packaging in food products is also getting louder.
As a result, food producers are becoming more interested in packaging made of sustainable materials. Many manufacturers develop the packaging themselves in consultation with suppliers and also at the request of their clients, the supermarkets. For more complex questions, they get in touch with Esther Hogeveen and her fellow researchers at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. In the Wrap or Waste project, companies can ask Hogeveen to calculate the consequences of different choices. This project shows that a whole range of factors need to be taken into account when deciding on the most sustainable packaging.
Producing and using plastic impacts the environment, which is why governments wants to further eliminate single-use plastic. Photo: Shutterstock
Such decisions usually already consider the reduction in CO₂ emissions, but there is more. According to Hogeveen, many manufacturers are insufficiently aware of the effect packaging choices have on the various dimensions of sustainability. “Producers often don’t include the impact of the packaging on the shelf life, and consequently miss potential food waste effects,” says Hogeveen.
Looking at the whole cycle
Using a more sustainable packaging material does not necessarily make the packaging solution more sustainable. Hogeveen explains: “Packaging has various functions, such as protecting the product and keeping it fresh for a sufficient length of time. That's why when we compare a new packaging product with the existing one, we look at the whole cycle from manufacture through to processing or recycling at the end of the lifecycle. But changing the packaging can also lead to more food waste, for example if the shelf life is reduced.”
The research team uses a new tool to determine the sustainability gains. With this tool, researchers examine the material properties of a certain packaging solution, assess the food losses due to the change in shelf life, and calculate the CO₂ emissions and other forms of environmental impact. “We look not only at the CO₂ emissions of the product itself but also at the possible emissions due to waste,” explains Hogeveen. “We also use other indicators, for example for litter and circularity. That can be another reason to choose an alternative even if the CO₂ emissions don’t improve much. It's the overall picture that's interesting. Manufacturers make the final decision, but we help them with the supporting evidence.”
Packaging tests and calculations
Hogeveen is in a project consortium together with the Federation of the Dutch Food Industry, the Netherlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging, the Dutch Food Retail Association, the Dutch Federation of the Rubber and Plastics Industry, the Fresh Produce Centre and the foundation to combat food waste Samen Tegen Voedselverspilling. These parties all recognise the importance of making food packaging more sustainable and are co-funding the research. Hogeveen: “They want to get their members to make real progress in sustainable packaging.” Some of those member companies come to Hogeveen with a packaging product and a related sustainability question.
For example, there is a company that sells flour mixes for bakeries. “Those bags were made from a combination of paper and plastic. The question was what the most sustainable alternative was: packaging made entirely of paper or entirely of plastic.” Paper scored best, but plastic was not that bad either as long as it was collected and recycled properly. Both scored better than the existing mix of paper and plastic.
Manufacturers often don’t consider food waste when developing sustainable packaging
We do our best, but reducing the amount of plastic packaging is proving quite difficult. Wageningen researcher Marieke Brouwer helps entrepreneurs in their search for more sustainable packaging, with the project Wrap or Waste. She not only looks at whether the new packaging is easy to recycle, but also at what the packaging does for the shelf life. After all, is a packaging really sustainable if it leads to more food waste? (English subtitles available in video)
However, paper had the downside of being an inferior moisture barrier. That turned out to have consequences for the shelf life: instead of a year, the flour was expected to keep for nine months. So the researchers calculated the impact of this on CO₂ emissions. “Bakeries probably wouldn’t have to throw away flour that often. According to the supplier, the bag is usually empty long before the nine months deadline, so while there is a risk of more waste, that risk is small. Whether you accept this is up to the company. They have other considerations too, such as the price of the material.”
Coffee and cheese
Another example: a metal, reusable coffee tin for coffee machines turned out to be a good alternative to multi-layer plastic packaging as long as the tin was reused at least twelve times. The tin then brings gains in sustainability without sacrificing shelf life. Yet the alternative packaging does not always perform better in an analysis, as was shown when testing a packaging product for cheese slices. This packaging consists of different materials with oxygen-permeable properties.
We also look at the possible CO₂ emissions due to waste
A manufacturer wanted to know if it was possible to use a new, recyclable plastic foil on an existing packaging machine. “That worked well under certain test conditions, but it was a bit trickier in practice,” Hogeveen says. “We discovered that the material properties of the packaging changed after it had been stored for a while. That meant a shorter lifespan. As a lot of CO₂ is emitted in the production of cheese, food waste has a particularly big impact in the calculations for this combination of product and packaging. The new packaging therefore turned out to be less sustainable on balance than had been expected.” With this example, Hogeveen shows how conditions across the entire lifecycle can also change the assessment.
To measure the sustainability of packaging, the entire chain from production to end-of-life processing or recycling is considered. Photo: Shutterstock
Answering new questions
In addition to calculating the sustainability of certain packaging products, Hogeveen is working with companies to map out strategic routes that fit with their sustainability goals. That makes it easier to incorporate changes such as the introduction of new materials or amendments to the regulations on recycling. “This can lead to follow-up requests to research a specific packaging solution.”
Hogeveen expects plenty of new requests in the coming years. “Next year, a European ban will come into effect on single-use portion packaging, such as for butter, chocolate sprinkles and mayonnaise. Hotels and restaurants will have to use larger packaging units, which will lead to more food waste. They could opt for reusable portion packaging instead, but that requires major changes and investments in the entire supply chain. I'm expecting a lot of questions about that. We can then start investigating the possible solutions.”