Environmental concerns have moved to the forefront of the packaging category as retailers and suppliers try to meet government and consumer demands.
By Nora Caley
It used to be that packaging companies only had to worry about creating containers that served some pretty basic needs—holding the products in place, keeping them safe and, perhaps, promoting the chain with graphics on the outside.
Today, all of those issues, while still extremely important, appear to be taking a back seat to making sure that the container is environmentally friendly and as energy-efficient as possible. In fact, many retailers say that they are fielding more and more questions from consumers about the packaging they use in-store and whether they meet current sustainability levels. This, in turn, has them demanding more “earth-friendly” products from their packaging suppliers.
“A package that is an eco-friendly option enhances the consumer’s image of the grocery store that offers it,” says Patrick Starrett, product manager for Robbie Manufacturing, based in Lenexa, Kan. “Through research we have learned that consumers appreciate retailers that have taken a step toward offering a more sustainable packaging alternative.
Almost half of the respondents said they are more likely to purchase a sustainable package.”
Starrett adds that retailers need to let consumers know the packaging is environmentally friendly. To help in this effort, Robbie redesigned its Hot N Handy Deli Sensations line.
“The Deli Sensations line includes language to help drive the sustainability message to the consumer, letting them know that their retailer is providing them with an eco-friendly packaging alternative,” he says. The new upscale look has a more contemporary theme with vibrant colors, say company officials.
While consumers are concerned about the sustainability of packaging, they consider at other factors as well, say observers.
Barak Bright, director of marketing for BagcraftPapercon, says consumers look for functionality and safety first, with source reduction a close second. “Is the packaging necessary or wasteful? Are your products made from renewable resources? Can your products be recycled? These are the questions we are seeing brought up,” he says.
The goal is not just to save trees but also to save money, Bright says. Packaging has to be environmentally friendly and competitively priced. “If we have an improved sustainable alternative package and no one can afford it, then what type of impact are we really making?” he says.
Among BagcraftPapercon’s newest items is the Dubl View ToGo! deli sandwich packaging. Bright says the bag, which features a side view anti-fog window to let consumers see the ingredients of the sandwich, is so popular that the Chicago-based company will invest in additional capacity sooner than it had planned.
Observers say consumers are interested in sustainable packaging, but many shoppers do not know all the details that make a company environmentally friendly. “Everyone has a different level of understanding with this subject,” says Stephen R. Schultz, director of corporate marketing for D&W Fine Pack, based in Fountain Inn, S.C.
For example, they might see recyclable PET plastic packaging at the deli, but they might not know that D&W, which provides PET and other packaging, uses energy efficient lighting in its factory. “It is one plank in a platform of sustainable marketing by our customers. There are many things we do and our customers do to practice sustainability,” Schultz adds.
The terms “sustainable” and “low carbon footprint” can be confusing to consumers too, says Herb Knutson, director of marketing for Inline Plastics, based in Shelton, Conn. “These terms are not synonymous,” he says. “Packaging does not necessarily have to be produced from recycled materials to have a low carbon footprint.”
Knutson says Inline’s containers are made from a new low carbon footprint PET material, produced using an energy-efficient process that has been shown to have a carbon footprint equal to a container made from 50% post-consumer recycled plastic.
One material consumers do understand is paper, says Erik O’Neil, vice president of sales for SOLUT!, based in Lewis Center, Ohio. The company makes recyclable corrugated boxes. “You plant trees, but you can’t plant oil,” O’Neil says.
The recycled content of the boxes ranges from 60% to 100% . “In general terms the consumer wants to feel good,” O’Neil says. “When a customer picks up a paper-based box versus plastic, they intuitively understand there is an environmental message. The supermarkets call out the sustainability characteristics.”
Among SOLUT!’s newest products are custom-printed boxes for private label prepared foods. SOLUT! also makes seasonal packages.
Cal Krupa, president and founder of Plymouth, Minn.-based Ultra Green, agrees that consumers generally understand the paper-not-plastic idea. “They don’t feel good about taking heavy plastic containers home and throwing them in the trash,” he says.
One of Ultra Green’s newest products is the TreeSaver Pizza Box, a round box that also serves as the baking pan. The box, which is made of sugarcane fiber, comes in sizes ranging from 8 inches to 16 inches.
Roman Forowycz, chief marketing officer for Clear Lam Packaging, based in Elk Grove Village, Ill., says that enough consumers are asking for eco-friendly containers that it is becoming standard to offer them. “Sustainable packaging is no longer considered exotic but it has become a part of the normal course of doing business,” he says.
Sustainability is important in dairy packaging too, says Erin Reynolds, senior marketing manager for dairy for Evergreen Packaging, based in Memphis, Tenn. “Consumers are taking a closer look at a brand’s environmental practices before they dip into their wallets,” she says.
Among the important attributes, Reynolds says, are that Evergreen Packaging’s cartons are recyclable in many areas, and 70% of the carton is made from paper produced from trees grown in responsibly managed forests. Also, more than half the energy used to make the paper is generated by renewable energy.
Protecting the food supply
Consumers also want packaging to provide other benefits, especially where food safety is concerned. “The package can play an active role and not simply act as a dust cover. Properly formulated packages can be hermetically sealed and the atmosphere inside the packages can be altered to help minimize bacterial growth and mold growth,” Forowycz says.
Many packaging executives say another way to keep food safe is to make the package tamper resistant. Flair Flexible Packaging, which is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, introduced Permazip packaging technology, which is a permanent, tamper resistant zipper on a flexible film pouch. “It can be sealed in the deli without specialized equipment, so you don’t have to heat seal it,” says marketing manager Cheryl Miller. “That’s a big selling point for supermarket chains.” Upon sealing, food is kept air-tight and safe from contamination.
Consumers also want food to remain fresh and uncontaminated after opening. Flair Flexible Packaging, which also has a sales and distribution office in Appleton, Wis., responded to this need with a three-layer high-barrier flexible pouch with a heat-sealed pour spout. The package, used for center store items such as pesto, prevents people from double dipping, something that cannot be avoided with jarred foods. “The spout squeezes out oxygen, not in, so the food stays fresher,” Miller notes. “Plus, the photo-quality graphics on a pouch really pop.”
For many consumers, convenience means eating in the car, and that presents an opportunity in grab-and-go selections, says Schultz. D&W’s new polypropylene Cruiser Bowl collection features containers and lids that are microwaveable, freezable, and dishwasher safe. They come sizes ranging from 8 to 16 ounces, including an 8-ounce bowl that fits in a car cup holder.
While most of the new packaging innovations have been for the prepared food departments, some companies also manufacture packaging for consumers to buy in grocery. LBP Manufacturing, which makes foodservice packaging, recently launched the Thermo Grip double walled paper coffee cups and lids for commuters.
“There are people who do not want to use their permanent cup,” says Kevin Dunn, retail sales director for the Cicero, Ill.-based company.
The recycled and recyclable category will remain strong, observers say. “Prices are coming down so green packaging has become more competitive with plastics,” says Ultra Green’s Krupa. “I don’t see any let up at all.”