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Interpack and Sustainability

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Sustainability is steadily gaining in importance for consumers. They want ethically and ecologically impeccable products, packaged in a resource-conserving manner that nevertheless ensures their product’s perfect condition when purchased. This is a major challenge to packaging producers, as the industry wants to save on materials without compromising the stability of the packaging in any way.


Interpack’s eye on sustainability

With interpack 2011 just months away, sustainable packaging suppliers and related associations—many of which will attend the event—provide a glimpse into the state of sustainability in Europe.

The Anglo-Dutch consumer goods group Unilever, owner of international brands such as Domestos household cleaner and Dove soap, is pursuing an ambitious strategy. It plans to double its worldwide sales from the current Euro 40 billion by 2020, and simultaneously halve its carbon dioxide emissions by improving efficiency in packaging and production. Moreover, Unilever is assuming greater social responsibility. By 2020, for instance, it aims to have integrated half a million small farmers and traders in developing countries into its supply chain. “We intend to be a sustainable company in every sense of the word,” says Unilever CEO Paul Polman.

Unilever’s primary motivation is not the conservation of nature, however, but economic success. For many consumers, sustainability has become an important purchasing criterion. Buyers who formerly seldom inquired about origin, type of production, and packaging now put a high priority on ecologically and morally “clean” goods. U.S. market analyst Pike Research estimates that global sales with sustainable packaging will almost double between 2009 and 2014, from $88 billion to $170 billion. “The environmental awareness of consumers has significantly increased as a consequence of the climate debate,” explains Pike Research president Clint Wheelock.

Lifestyles are becoming greener
In addition to climate protection, social aspects play an increasingly important role. Modern consumers want to lead a more healthy lifestyle, and therefore they value natural food products that are absolutely safely packaged and have a pure taste. For this client group, it is a matter of growing importance that product manufacturers demonstrate social engagement and offer fair trade goods.

“We are seeing a trend toward ethical consumerism,” declares analyst Jens Lönneker of the Cologne market research company Rheingold. He has observed that fair trade is firmly established among LOHAS (consumers who aspire to a Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability). Now it is spreading to the “plus-18 year olds,” who prefer fair trade beer or lemonade in chic bottles over conventional soft drinks or lager.

For the industry, the sustainability trend is both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, CPGs have to develop new products and campaigns, incurring high costs. On the other hand, the increasing demand for sustainable products promises economic growth. This is why the financially strongest big companies, such as Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, and Unilever, pursue comprehensive sustainability strategies. They support environmental, nature, and aid organizations or provide development aid themselves. They are also investing in more efficient production lines and packaging. “We will cut our materials consumption by a third by 2020,” promises Unilever CEO Polman.

Product protection is essential
Packaging manufacturers are helping the industry to reduce its ecological footprint by designing new packaging and developing associated production processes. This is no easy task. Raw material consumption needs to be reduced by using thinner and smaller amounts of resource-intensive materials, but this must not compromise the integrity and stability of the packaging.

“The top priority is protection of the packaging contents,” says Stefan Glimm, managing director of the German Aluminum Industry Association (GDA). There is a good reason for this. According to the European Organization for Packaging and the Environment (EUROPEN), the value of the resources input into and held in food products is much higher than the value of the packaging that protects these products. Product losses resulting from inadequate packaging therefore account for more carbon dioxide emissions than are saved by eliminating surplus packaging.

In developing countries, food losses are a big problem. According to EUROPEN, 40% of the goods in the supply chain are lost. Better protection of products in these countries could therefore considerably ease the burden on the environment.

At the interpack 2011 trade fair, to be held from May 12-18, 2011 in Düsseldorf, Germany, food protection will be one of the key themes. The special exhibition SAVE FOOD, organized together with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, will show how the individual elements in the value chain can make a contribution, in terms of packaging, logistics, and transport, to cutting worldwide food waste.

Safety is the top priority
Packaging manufacturers have come up with many innovations to demonstrate that safety and ecology need not be mutually exclusive. The U.S. company Sonoco, for example, will exhibit efficient packaging solutions in the form of its new True Blue Line at interpack 2011. According to company spokesman Jeff Schuetz, the True Blue packaging is just as stable as its predecessors but contains less material or can be more easily recycled.

The industry is already making appreciative use of this range from Sonoco. The German food conglomerate Kraft Foods recently started to use Sonoco-designed containers made from recyclable cardboard instead of tins for its coffee brands Maxwell House, Nabob, and Yuban. Another example is Unilever, which has redesigned the plastic bottles for its Suave brand hair care products with the help of Sonoco. The new containers require 16% less material, but thanks to their new curved form, they are more stable than their predecessors.

The German Plastics Packaging Industry Association (IK) views such innovations as a confirmation of its own position that plastic is eminently suitable for sustainable packaging. “It is very versatile,” declares Isabell Schmidt, IK expert on the environment and sustainable development. Plastic provides protection, is transparent, and thanks to the low weight of the packaging, it enables savings to be achieved in transport costs and carbon dioxide emissions. The sector intends to increase its sustainability performance still further. “Its aims include even lighter packaging and even more recycling,” she adds.

Materials meet range of sustainability requirements
Besides plastic, materials such as paper, cardboard, glass and metal (e.g. aluminum) are also candidates for a sustainable packaging strategy, as each of them offers its own individual advantages.

A study by the Dutch research institute DE Delft shows that paper and cardboard, for example, have a smaller carbon footprint than most other packages, due to factors such as efficient production and lower transport emissions. The carbon dioxide equivalent of paper and related materials is 676 kilograms carbon dioxide per metric ton of material, whereas that of other conventional packaging materials is at least 1,000 kilograms.

Glass, on the other hand, cannot boast a very low weight, but is returnable, recyclable, and absolutely safe. “Glass is inert, so that practically no interaction can occur between contents and packaging,” explains Johann Overath, managing director of the Federal Association of the German Glass Industry.

In addition, glass is made almost totally from raw materials that occur in sufficient quantities in nature. This appeals to consumers who value pure taste and want to consume products from a “healthy” package. According to a survey by the European Container Glass Federation (FEVE), 75% of Europeans prefer glass as a packaging material, as they believe it contributes to a healthy lifestyle.

Tinplate and aluminum also protect food products and can be easily recycled. The recycling rate of aluminum is 82.3% and that of aluminum cans is an impressive 96%. “This rate will be boosted still further by closing the gaps in recycling loops,” says GDA managing director Glimm. The sector also wants to cut the consumption of materials. According to Glimm, “the aim is to protect more products with less aluminum.”

Bioplastics are on the advance
Manufacturers of established packaging materials must, however, expect increasing competition from bioplastics. These may not be as versatile as conventional oil-based plastics, but they make up for this with ever improving properties. The British company Innovia Films recently launched a biodegradable plastic film for food products. Known as Natureflex, it is 100% compostable. According to head of marketing Andy Sweetman, this multilayer bio-film forms an excellent barrier against moisture and gases, so that packaged products such as biscuits retain their crispness over a long time.

The German bioplastics producer FKuR Kunststoff also focuses on excellent barrier properties. The company’s products include multilayer biofilms that also prevent leakage from eco-nappies. A new development from FKuR is bio-packaging suitable for very low temperatures, which is used for frozen food.

The rapid advance of bioplastic packaging is also reflected at the interpack trade fair. At interpack 2005, only 250 sq m were devoted to this theme within a special exhibit; at interpack 2011, it will cover about 2,000 sq m of regular exhibit space.

Sustainability even in production
Manufacturers of packaging machinery can also contribute to further rapid cuts in the cost of packaging. The Food Processing and Packaging Machinery Association of the German Engineering Federation (VDMA) sees opportunities for achieving savings not just in packaging materials. A major contribution to sustainable production can be made by reducing the consumption of energy and operating materials by packaging machinery through the use of modern technology. For instance, decentral servo technology, which functions more dynamically and efficiently than large drives, could be used.

Although the purchase costs for these machines are high, VDMA claims that the expenditure can easily be recouped during the life cycle of a modern system through its lower energy consumption. Product manufacturers who put their faith in sustainability therefore profit first of all at the production stage, even before their products reach the point of sale.

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