• Double take

    The sustainability of packaging has come into focus in line with efforts to conserve resources. And the industry is investing in new eco-friendly materials that are easily recycled but still functional.

    Double take

    As you leave gym, after an early-morning spinning class, you stop for a post-workout smoothie. There, at the counter, you see a notice encouraging you not to take a straw. ‘Straws suck,’ you’re told – and, of course, you agree. Plastic straws are part of the enormous single-use plastic problem that will, by some estimates, see the world’s oceans containing more plastic than fish by weight by 2050.

    So you forego the straw … but as you drink that hard-earned smoothie, you’re left wondering about the plastic cup you’re drinking out of, and about the packaging that stored and transported each of the ingredients. After all, the strawberries, bananas, frozen yoghurt and pressed apple juice in your Strawberry Stinger had to somehow be kept fresh on their journey from the farm to your gym’s kitchen.

    Whatever happened to all that packaging? The simple answer is that it either got recycled or ended up in a landfill. And that, in turn, raises more questions, which the packaging industry is looking to answer through a string of product innovations.

    ‘The throwaway culture of today will evolve into one that understands and embraces the role of packaging as a primary means to reduce global food and product waste,’ market intelligence firm Mintel states in its 2018 list of global packaging trends. ‘Consumers have long considered packaging as often unnecessary, and ultimately as just waste to be disposed of. But that misconception is now changing.’

    Mintel notes that consumers are increasingly benefiting from ‘a focus on package innovations that extend food freshness, preserve ingredient fortification, and ensure safe delivery’, adding that brands would need to ‘act fast by exploiting on-pack communication tools to educate consumers to the benefits packaging can bring, from extending shelf- life of food to providing efficient and safe access to essential products in developed and underserved regions of the world’.

    The industry-wide focus is now on developing new technologies that will better enable recycling without compromising the quality of the packaging. This was the clear theme at the Propak Cape 2017 trade show, held in Cape Town last October.


    ‘This year’s theme focused on sustainability, which is very pertinent given the Western Cape’s current drought situation,’ Propak Cape event director Sven Smit said in a statement. ‘The sustainability of packaging has never been more important, and local packaging companies are investing in research and development to develop new eco-friendly materials that can be recycled, but remain sturdy and temperature resistant.’

    The Propak event attracted more than 200 local and international exhibitors, with almost 6 000 visitors attending during the course of the event’s three days. One of the speakers at the free-to-attend seminars was Douw Steyn, sustainability director at PlasticsSA, who provided an overview of what the South African plastics industry is doing to design better packaging, increase recycling rates, and introduce new models for making better use of a circular plastics economy.

    ‘Plastic is here to stay,’ said Steyn. ‘It’s all around us in our everyday lives. But a lot of work is being done, especially in packaging, around what materials we should use, how it’s produced, what its usability is and what impact it has on the environment. Recycling and sustainability are key to the industry’s future.’

    Many conversations at the event – and, indeed, across the wider industry – revolved around the notion of a ‘circular economy’. While it’s become a buzzword in the packaging sector, it remains an important concept, as South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa emphasised at the launch of the Africa Alliance on Circular Economy in Bonn, Germany, in November. ‘It is said that the idea behind the circular economy is a simple one… The idea is to limit or totally eliminate waste and to extend the lifespan of a product as well as to maximise the utilisation of products and assets in the value chain. But with the right business model, products could stay in the economy many times longer than today, and utilisation rates of everything from cars to consumer goods could increase up to 10 times through the use of innovative sharing models.

    ‘Circular economy encourages companies to re-think how goods are designed, produced and marketed with reuse in mind.’

    Design is key to this. Speaking to Farmer’s Weekly last year, Linus Opara of the University of Stellenbosch’s faculty of agri-sciences recalled how, when he started his research in the field of post-harvest horticultural packaging in the 1990s, packaging design was ‘merely based on a layperson’s perceptions of what is required. For example, cardboard boxes traditionally had two holes on the sides… They were there for ease of carrying and had nothing to do with ventilation. Today we know that holes not only need to be of a specific size to allow enough cold air to ventilate through-out the carton, but that the shape of the holes and their positioning have an impact on the efficiency of the cooling process’.

    In a paper published by the African Journal of Agricultural Research, Opara writes that inappropriate processing and packaging (or, indeed, a lack of these) can contribute 25% to 50% food loss, especially in developing countries. He further cites World Packaging Organisation research, which found that about 10% of fruit and vegetables shipped to the EU are discarded due to unacceptable quality and spoilage. ‘These high levels of post-harvest loss and waste suggest that food production is only half the battle to feed the world,’ writes Opara. ‘Examining the role of packaging in reducing post-harvest food losses and waste is particularly important given that packaging also contributes to municipal waste after completing its function of protecting the contents.

    ‘The need to handle and dispose of large quantities of packaging after utilising the food contents, therefore, constantly puts packaging waste in bad light in public discussion about waste, often ignoring the critical role that packaging plays in securing the food system.’

    Smart packaging will play an increasingly larger role in this conversation, with the global market expected to reach US$46.74 billion by 2022, as forecast by Market Research Future. Smart (or intelligent) packaging refers to packaging systems that help monitor product freshness, extend shelf-life, improve safety and display information on quality to consumers.

    There’s a trend towards technologically advanced packaging that’s easier to recycle without compromising quality

    ‘The term “intelligent” is attributed to the type of packaging that has the ability to sense or measure the attributes of a product, the inner environment of the package, as well as shipping environment,’ says Leslie Carr, director of British printed paper cups manufacturer Scyphus. ‘Examples include temperature monitors, nano-sensors, enzymes and anti-bacterial agents. The active components are designed to help monitor and control food degradation, maintain nutritional quality, ensure microbial safety and extend shelf-life. In other cases, certain packaging – such as films – are developed in such a way to become edible, allowing consumers to eat the packaging together with the product itself.’

    The two major industries where intelligent packaging is thriving are, perhaps inevitably, pharmaceuticals, and food and beverage. ‘The latter market is enjoying a rapid growth, principally driven by the soaring demand from the government, authorities, and consumers for transparency and food safety,’ says Carr.

    Could this be the solution to packaging’s sustainability problem? That notice at your gym’s smoothie counter suggests it might. As Carr points out, consumers are increasingly calling for sustainably sourced products and clean processing. ‘As consumers are eating and drinking more responsible food, they also want the same rule to be applied to the packaging of their products.’

    By Mark van Dijk
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images