Sustainable Food & Beverage Packaging: From Recycling to Supply Chain
Paper is an important component in many food and beverage packaging containersâand is the base material for everything from boxes, to inserts, to labels. Incorporating recycled content into food and beverage packaging is one way to be “green,” but today, a company’s commitment to green should transcend recycling, and should instead carry all the way through the supply chain to include sustainable and responsible sourcing practices.
A food and beverage company’s packaging is the outward face of its brand, so the packaging must balance functionality, meet FDA standards and be visually appealing to command attention at the point of purchase.
In the old days, recycled paper and packaging elements had visible fiber or brown color which served to âproveâ to consumers that the product contained recycled content.Â Such recycled fiber packaging had a surface that was not conducive to slick, high- definition photography and graphic printing, and moreover, it may not have met all FDA requirements.Â Today, however, new technology and innovations in paper production are giving food and beverage companies more choices than ever before for their packaging options.
To put it simply, packaging that looks âbrownâ is not always the most âgreenâ choice âand stylized, colorful packaging can be more sustainable than brown- colored packaging for food and beverage companies.Â The advent of environmentally-safe bleaching processes and color additives means that now, one cannot judge the recycled content of a package on color alone.
New paper mills in China incorporate production lines designed to adapt to specific customer requirements, and produce outputs that include packaging composed of 35 percent post-consumer waste.Â As compared to traditional product manufacturing in North America, where domestic mills only offer products with 10 percent post-consumer waste, Asian mills have built multi-layer machines equipped with the latest technology and the best economies of scale. Â Their resulting paper products include a higher use of post-consumer waste, while simultaneously ensuring the packaging appearance is aesthetically pleasing and functional (for frozen dinner containers, pizza boxes and other take out containers).Â The result:Â brands can enjoy more environmentally-friendly packaging, without compromising their sustainability goals.
Itâs worthwhile to mention that unlike almost 80 percent of the packaging market worldwide, North America is still undergoing change and currently uses the highest ratio of virgin fiber per box (or per ton of board) as compared to rest of the world. Â Indeed, in addition to the benefits associated with using recyclable fiber, the most modern paper mills offer greater choice when it comes to packaging surface and grade, as well as various options for coated, uncoated, or even FDA-approved packaging.
Because of these efficiencies and new state-of-the-art production facilities, the price of recycled packaging has dropped dramatically.Â In many applications, food and beverage companies can now offer post-consumer recycled packaging materials with the same look and relative cost as virgin fiber choices.
Supply Chain and Certification
To enhance their sustainability commitments beyond simply incorporating recycled materials, food and beverage companies and distributors should pay attention to their suppliersâ sustainable paper practices and chain-of-custody procedures related to the sourcing of packagingâs raw materials. Â The goal is for companies to be able to trace their packaging to raw materials derived from sustainably-managed forests and/or responsible timber providers. Today, only 10 percent of the worldâs forests are certified, so companies should ask how their suppliers are tracing paper to the source.
Paper suppliers should be able to confirm that their products are sourced from legal and sustainable timber, which means that the wood should come from plantations, not protected rainforests. Packaging providers should be able to point toward independent, third-party audits verifying the legality of any forests they own or manage prior to harvesting any materials. Â Your suppliers should all be able to demonstrate a commitment to sustainable forest practices; 100 percent compliance with the laws of the raw materialsâ country of origin; and/or industry-recognized certification from groups such as the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) or The Indonesian Ecolabelling Institute (LEI).
Different paper certifications follow similar criteria, so the following questions can be used to confirm that your supplier meets responsible standards:
- Do your supplierâs logging and paper manufacturing processes adhere to the environmental laws and regulations of their countries of origin?
- Can your supplier demonstrate the use of environmentally sound processes in all operations, including waste, energy, water management and the management of hazardous substances and emissions?
- Does the company support initiatives to improve transparency on sustainability issues in the entire paper supply chain?
- Is the company involved in ongoing forest protection discussions that seek conflict resolution through dialogue with all stakeholders?
In addition to being good for the environment, sustainable and recycled packaging can also be good for your bottom line, allowing you to offer environmentally-friendly choices without any trade-off in aesthetics or utility. Companies should ensure that all paper products in their supply chain meet established,Â verified environmental standards and should come from environmentally friendly sources that are 100 percent legal, including recycled or rapidly renewable fiber.
Ian Lifshitz is sustainability and public outreach manager for Asia Pulp & Paper in North America.
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