What’s Driving Sustainability in the Food Containers Industry?

What’s Driving Sustainability in the Food Containers Industry?

Rushing through the store crossing items off a grocery list, shoppers don’t necessarily want to associate their beloved pantry staples (or junk food) with images of overflowing landfills or ducks tangled in dirty plastic. But packaging – including single-use foodservice and retail packaging – makes up roughly a third of solid landfill waste and serves as a potent polluter of every kind of body of water. The same qualities that make packaging effective at protecting its contents – durability, moisture resistance, light weight – also make it an environmental nuisance. Thus, it’s no surprise that efforts to reduce waste frequently single out foodservice and retail food packaging.

Currently, demand for rigid food containers is 197 billion units, while flexible containers account for another 116 billion units. Combined, demand for both products is expected to increase nearly 2% per year through 2022. Plainly put, that’s a lot of containers and a lot of landfill waste.

Strategies to mitigate the environmental impact of food containers primarily include source reduction and recycling initiatives. Packaging firms continue to implement these strategies, and environmental issues will drive innovation in packaging products and manufacturing processes. Unilever, Nestlé, McDonalds, and PepsiCo, among many others, have all set ambitious packaging sustainability goals for the next decade.

Source Reduction: Manufacturing More from Less

While you may not understand why, you probably realize when your food packaging feels thinner and lighter, or when it takes a different shape. These changes are partly due to packaging manufacturers’ efforts at source reduction. As the name suggests, this process is focused on reducing the amount of material or energy used to produce packaging. Source reduction initiatives cut raw material costs for the manufacturer. And the environmental benefits of these measures are not to be discounted. Less weight and less material inevitably means less waste once the product is discarded.

Applesauce containers are a good illustration of source reduction in action. Less than a decade ago, applesauce aisles were dominated by glass containers and plastic single-serving cups. Today, a visit to that same aisle of the grocery store would yield only a few glass jar options, with plastic cups in much shorter supply. Larger jars are primarily produced from plastic now, while individual servings are typically packaged in plastic pouches, which are lighter, easier to store, and minimize food waste.

While just one example, the shift in applesauce packaging is indicative of a larger trend in US food containers. Brands that traditionally employed glass or metal jars and cans are developing lighter and more versatile plastic options. And manufacturers of foods that are suitable for sale in flexible containers (like pouches), will continue to make the conversion where it is cheap and easy to do so.

Used Is the New Raw: Recyclable Containers + Recycled Containers = Energy & Material Savings

While source reduction occurs mainly at the manufacturing and distribution levels, the responsibilities for packaging recycling are divided (somewhat) equally between producer and consumer. Recycling in packaging can refer to one of two things:

  • how much recycled content is in the product
  • whether or not a product can be recycled by the consumer after use

At the manufacturers’ level, making products from post-consumer materials not only diverts discarded packaging from the solid waste stream, it also means less raw material is required to manufacture the product. In the case of plastics, that means less petroleum used and with paperboard, fewer felled frees.

For the discerning shopper, the labels on food containers will usually indicate whether or not the packaging was produced partially or fully using post-consumer material. Additionally, consumers can consult the number inside the universal recycling symbol on the item in order to identify:

  • the material type
  • its recyclability

If the containers are produced from the proper materials, recycling them can be as easy as leaving them on the curb for the local pickup service.

As to the recyclability of plastic containers, many brands and outlets, including some of those mentioned above, have partnered with How2Recycle, an organization that aims to remove ambiguity from recycling labels, especially when packaging consists of multiple materials that may need to be recycled in different ways.

Business & Sustainability Goals Packaged Together

Through source reduction and measures to ensure product recyclability/compostability, food manufacturers can make significant strides in minimizing the environmental impact of food packaging. Continued innovation to ensure food product safety, reduce food waste, and limit the flow of food packaging into landfills and waterways will not only benefit the planet and its inhabitants immensely – it will have a positive impact on manufacturers’ bottom lines, as well.

To Find Out More

For more information on trends, market share, products, and major producers in the food container industry, check out the Freedonia Group's new study Food Containers in the US.

About the Author:

Alecia Mouhanna is a Corporate Analyst at the Freedonia Group, where she researches and writes about a diverse range of topics, including construction and building materials, chemicals, packaging, and more. 

  Industry Studies      Packaging