Sustainability has been the big buzzword in the industry for years. While some brands are pushing ahead in adopting renewable materials and 'greener' manufacturing process, the retail industry at large still has a long way to go in making the bulk of its packaging more earth-friendly.
In recent years much research has gone into the development of plant-based, renewable alternatives to petroleum-based plastics and we have seen a variety of bioplastics making their way into retail packaging. But while the technology is available, the higher cost of plant-based raw materials remains a significant stumbling block holding companies - and especially major retailers - back from making the switch to renewable packaging, explains John Goeden, president of Precision Color Graphics.
The US-based company is leading innovation in the field of eco-friendly packaging with its patented Ecoterah bag, the first multi-layer retail package to be certified 100% compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute. Here, John Goeden tells us more about the drive towards renewable packaging and the challenges that remain for manufacturers in this budding sector.
Susanne Hauner: Are manufacturers of consumer products seeing increased consumer demand for sustainable packaging?
John Goeden: I believe most consumers are looking at sustainability and especially the consumer that is out for their organic food. We can see especially natural, organic products going into sustainable packages. We have a lot of nut and granola companies looking into that because their consumers are looking for sustainable packaging.
We can see [this consumer demand] in sales figures. We have a very large pet food company in the United States, called Tuffy's Pet Foods, who went from regular PET to our Ecoterah packaging for their cat and dog food and their sales rose exponentially - I think it was 30% a year.
SH: How much priority to consumers and producers give to sustainability, compared to other factors such as quality or cost?
JG: If consumers can get their package pretty close to the same price as a normal package, they're going to buy the more sustainable package because it's better for the environment. But I think if it's a lot more expensive, they're not going to buy it. You get that little bit of your population, some people who are absolutely crazy for sustainability and they'll pay anything for it. But most of your average consumers, if it costs a lot more, they're not going to buy it.
And the same goes with the companies that are producing. When we sell sustainable packaging we're finding that the buyers - especially retail companies, the Walmarts and Targets of the world - want to be sustainable. They put in their solar lighting and all that, but when it comes to packaging, if the package is not really the same price as their old package, they don't go to it. They want to do it, but if [the cost] is 5% more, most of the time they don't do it.
SH: Is bringing the price down one of the main challenges that manufacturers of sustainable packaging are facing at the moment?
JG: Yes, I believe that is the biggest drawback. The costs of the raw material for a sustainable package - unless we're just talking paper - are really more than petroleum-based materials. PLA, corn-based, sugarcane-based - any kind of plant-based packaging is more expensive.
But I think if we get more and more people to buy sustainable and compostable packaging - especially the bigger companies - the price will come down and sustainable products are going to become completely competitive with petroleum-based products.
I think in the next five years prices are going to come down if we can get some of the big retailers and grocery chains to buy into it. They say they do, but they're really don't yet. And I understand. If they add 5% [to their prices] because their packaging costs more, it's not going to look good for them. But they also have to consider this: The packaging might cost 5% more if they go sustainable, but how much will that quantify in sales? Will it add another 30% to the bottom line of their sales of that individual item? That's something I can't qualify. I have a few customers who have done this and are very happy with it, but the big boys will have to decide that for themselves. And I think they're in that stage right now.
SH: Do you think paper has the potential to be used more widely as an alternative to plastic?
JG: Yes, absolutely. We had shelf life testing done on our Ecoterah packaging [for Tuffy's pet food] and it held up better than a regular multi-wall bag with PET as a liner inside, so our corn-based PLA shelf life was longer than the petroleum-based one. We can also metallise our PLA with a natural material and once it's metallised the shelf life of the package is just tremendous.
And you can put more products into that type of bag - potato chips, nuts, coffee, candy, you name it. We're seeing a lot of interest, especially in the area of potato chips, and we have testing going on with hops, barley and candy. We're also testing frozen foods to see how the bags will hold up in the freezer and so far it seems like they hold up pretty well.
The problem with paper-based packaging is that it's not as durable as plastic. Even with the biopolymer lining, it's not going to be as indestructible as a PET bag. We're also trying to find a compostable zipper for the bag. We had one, but because nobody is really purchasing that zipper, they stopped making it. Now we're back to the drawing board to find another zipper manufacturer that can make a compostable zipper.
SH: Apart from the cost, which factors are holding retailers back from switching to more sustainable materials such as paper?
JG: A lot of these companies naturally are set up to run poly bags or PET bags, and it's a little harder to run paper through your form, fill and seal equipment. So they may have to retrofit their equipment, and the question is, are they willing to do it? The smaller companies, absolutely. The big boys - not so much yet, and it's totally understandable.
Part of it is about speed. They can run a poly bag or PET very fast through their equipment. How fast can we get the paper to run through - we don't know yet. You have to do quite a bit of testing. Petroleum-based products are also slippery so they will go through the forming horns on your packaging equipment a lot easier than paper. There's some friction to the paper so [manufacturers] may have to Teflon-coat their forming horns, they may have to do a couple of other things.
Every company has different equipment, so they'll have to tell us, we're having a little problem here, we're having a little heat build-up in this area. Is there anything we can do to prevent that? Yes. We try to get a higher COF on the PLA, put on another coating. But it's a trial and error process, and a lot of the big manufacturers don't have time to do that. But I think they will. If the consumer demands it, they're just going to have to keep working on it.