In the food industry, reducing consumption of virgin plastics in packaging is an increasingly important sustainability target for food brands and packaging suppliers, a large number of which have publicly pledged to increase the amount of alternative materials in their packaging. For example:
- Campbell Soup aims to incorporate 25% post-consumer recycled content in its PET bottles by 2025.
- Clif Bar & Company pledges that 25% of the plastic used in packaging will be made with renewable or recycled materials by 2025.
- Mars has a goal of using 30% average recycled content in its plastic packaging by 2025.
- PepsiCo pledges to use 25% recycled content in plastic packaging by 2025.
- Food packaging supplier Berry Global intends to use 10% post-consumer recycled content throughout its plastic packaging portfolio by 2025.
- Food packaging supplier Sealed Air has a goal of using an average of 50% recycled content across all its packaging by 2025.
- Additionally, a number of major retailers – including Costco, Kroger, Target, and Walmart – have goals to decrease use of virgin plastics in packaging.
From molded sugarcane to paper to recycled plastic, there are many ways companies are meeting their plastic reduction targets. While plastic will remain the dominant food packaging material by far through 2025, the Freedonia Group predicts rapid growth for these virgin plastic alternatives in the following major food applications.
In the rapidly growing fresh and frozen prepared foods market, newer materials such as molded sugarcane are expected to log rapid growth, albeit from a very small base, as a result of growing interest in sustainable alternatives to conventional plastic containers such as trays and bowls.
Meat, Poultry, & Seafood
While plastic will also continue to dominate packaging demand in meat, poultry, and seafood applications, molded fiber materials are expected to see healthy growth due to ongoing sustainability efforts, especially in areas like trays. For example, in September 2020 Cascades launched North America’s first thermoformed fiber tray, intended for meat, poultry, seafood, and fresh produce. The tray is made from 100% recycled fiber and has a water-based coating to ensure complete recyclability.
Molded fiber packaging, particularly molded pulp and molded sugarcane, is expected to see fast growth as an alternative to plastic in fresh produce applications, especially for foam trays and flats. Of these materials, sugarcane has the most promise as it is just being introduced to the market and has better performance properties than current molded pulp alternatives.
Like most food sectors, the dairy industry is under pressure to be more sustainable with its packaging, and this has led to greater scrutiny of the materials used. Some producers have begun to switch from plastic bottles back to paperboard cartons or from plastic yogurt cups to paper cups. Going forward, these conversions are expected to become more common as improvements are made in the performance of materials that can be used in place of plastic.
However, plastic packaging suppliers are also improving their sustainability profile by using high proportions of recycled content and switching to bioplastic materials. As a result, shifts in material usage are expected to be gradual instead of dramatic.
Plastic will continue to be the leading baked goods packaging material due to its low cost, clarity (which showcases the contents), and ability to be fashioned into numerous forms. In addition, plastic bags keep baked goods such as bread fresher for longer periods than paper, which is porous and allows air into the package. Nevertheless, opportunities exist for molded fiber products, especially sugarcane, for the packaging of products like cookies, especially for artisan or health-focused producers.
Additionally, recycled plastic represents an opportunity for baked goods brands to improve packaging sustainability without shifting away from plastic. For example, in October 2020, Novolex’s Waddington Europe division launched Eco Blend Pura thermoformed trays made from 100% post-consumer recycled PET. The trays can be used for baked goods and other items.
As snack foods are often eaten on the go (and thus the packaging often ends up improperly discarded into the environment), producers of snacks looking to protect their brand image continue to seek improved packaging that is biodegradable. Earlier attempts to bring out sustainable chip packaging based on the bioplastic PLA led to a consumer backlash due to the noise of the chip bags, which limited new introductions to some extent.
However, the development of more sustainable products continues to be pursued. For example, PepsiCo, a leading supplier of snack foods, has stated plans to make 100% of its packaging recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025. In 2018, the company announced the development of a snack chip packaging based on the bioplastic PHA, which would be fully compostable in home compost systems.
Cellulose is also being positioned as a more sustainable packaging option for snacks such as chips, as it is compostable and provides product differentiation.
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About the Author: Peter Kusnic is a Content Writer with The Freedonia Group, where he researches and writes studies focused on an array of industries.