Today food processors face ever-changing market pressures from consumers, retailers, and regulators. At times it feels like juggling too many balls which constantly change weight and size. Sustainability is a new ball thrown into the mix for food manufactures by consumers and retailers.
Definition of sustainability in the Meat and Poultry business What is sustainability and how is it defined in the context of food packaging? The most frequently used definition is ‘avoidance of the depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance.’ Many people would disagree with this definition, just as they would disagree on any solutions or programs that others would consider sustainable. The industry is flummoxed with the definition of sustainability as well as choices of readily available sustainable packaging solutions. This is the current state of sustainability in the Meat and Poultry business today. Canadian plastic industry and sustainability Later this year the Government of Canada, following the 2019 national report on the plastic industry1, will decide the fate of single-use plastics such as straws, bags, cutlery, and perhaps primary food packaging. The sobering data from the study indicates Canadians throw away three million tons of plastic waste every year. About 86% of plastic ends up in landfills, 9% is recycled and 4% is incinerated. While we wait for a verdict on the future of single-use plastics, we ought to examine practical sustainable solutions given the current Canadian waste management infrastructure, innovative non-plastic materials, and reusable containers.
Primary packaging for meat and poultry could be marked as single-use plastic and a path to substitute or eliminate primary plastic packaging may be carved out. Although this is unlikely soon, we ought to start exploring current solutions in the industry that most industry stakeholders agree are sustainable.
The popular 3Rs of sustainability present a good starting point; reuse, recycle and reduce.
Recycle Recycling as mentioned before accounts for 4% of all Canadian plastic waste. Averting plastic from landfills is commendable but it is costly, and the current recycling infrastructure is not scalable due to labor and technology constraints. Primary food packaging is hardly recyclable because many of the materials are made up of two or more materials that are glued together (commonly referred to as multilayer plastics). Recent efforts have focused on the chemical breakdown of multilayer food packaging materials with extraordinarily little success. The holy grail of recycling in the food industry is a high barrier monolayer structure. Even if there is a material breakthrough, we must contend with our current recycling infrastructure.
Reduce Reducing packaging material consumption is a medium-term solution at best. Thinner materials through the process of downgauging means lighter packages, source reduction, and a lower carbon footprint. In certain instances, downgauging led to a 60% material reduction with the same performance. Although this is an effort that is considered sustainable most of the material ends up in a landfill.
Reuse Reuse has garnered a lot of traction and popularity. With programs such as LOOP which Loblaws implemented successfully using rigid packaging that can be cleaned and reused. Meat and Poultry products present challenging food safety hurdles to embrace reusable containers. Crosscontamination is a significant concern for retailers, and we suspect a low adoption rate of reusable containers for meat and poultry on a large scale across the country is years away.
Sustainability and food waste reduction Plastic food packaging has helped reduce food waste since the mid-1950s when plastic bags were first used in supermarkets. As more uses of plastics were found, we stumbled upon modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) first through vacuum packing meat to extend shelf life and later altering the gas composition of the headspace of packages. It is only in the last 20 years that a concerted push for sustainability has gained momentum to a tipping point where plastic must be replaced or reused.
MAP helped reduce food waste for decades and will continue to do so. Familiar examples of MAP reducing food waste are fresh chicken in oxygen permeable shrink bags lasting between 14 to 21 days in retail stores, and fresh pork shoulder in high barrier shrink bags lasting 60 days.
A troubling statistic from the World Health Organization (WHO) asserts 33% of global food production is wasted2 from farm to fork, or enough food to feed 3 billion people. When you consider the water, land, energy, labor, and capital used you begin to understand how unsustainable the status quo is. Packaging combined with the right process can help reduce food waste.
New approaches to sustainable packaging Food packaging suppliers lately feel the same pressure as food processors to solve the sustainability challenges. The 3Rs mentioned before are part of the solution. New approaches look to using renewable resources to make food packaging. Bioplastics made from plants are gaining popularity because they not only come from a renewal source but also biodegrade. Bioplastics account for only 1% of global plastic production. Some require special facilities to speed up decomposition which are scarce in Canada. In addition, food packaging bioplastics are mostly laminated to a plastic derived from fossil fuel. Bioplastics substitute one problem but introduce additional issues. PLA or polylactic acid derived from plant cellulose such as corn or potato (starch), require new farmland that does not compete with human and animal consumption. Where will the extra land come from? How about additives3 in bioplastics that could migrate into food that are not fully understood yet? If bioplastics cannot be composted at home, where can they be recycled or decomposed in Canada? Some bioplastics decomposed into smaller pieces of plastic, called micro-plastics, do we understand the true negative impact to the environment ? Unless we get satisfactory answers, be wary of bioplastics before jumping on the bandwagon of buzzwords in the plastic industry.
A practical approach to plastic packaging sustainability efforts A pragmatic approach to solving sustainability challenges is to rethink our landfills which account for 86% of all plastic waste. With the existing infrastructure, can we convert plastic to organic matter without using chemicals, heat, or more energy?
In other words, food packaging manufacturers have a huge incentive to design materials that can decompose in a landfill without expending more resources.
Duropac has taken this pragmatic approach and will launch food packaging solutions that completely decompose in landfills within 26 months. A food-safe additive that attracts anaerobic bacteria to ingest plastic and through the action of enzymes converts multilayer plastic into organic matter that is beneficial to the soil such as humus and other nutrients.
Choosing a sustainable package to satisfy 2025 sustainability goals identified by some retailers The process of choosing packaging as a food processor is complex and striking a balance to satisfy retailers and consumers makes it daunting at times.
There are many ‘sustainability’ packaging options available, and it is up to each Meat and Poultry packer, producer, distributor, food service company, and retailer to take a deep dive with their supplier to decide.
Sustainability is a buzzword that sells. Before the pandemic, some studies showed that between 15% to 30% of consumers would be willing to pay more for products with a sustainability claim. Here are the steps we prescribe if you are willing to capitalize on this massive shift toward sustainable packaging: • Contact several manufacturers or distributors and have a candid conversation about their sustainable packaging options. • Perform thorough due diligence of the options including a life cycle analysis. • Test the samples and conduct a shelf-life study – make sure the products live up to the promises. • Rethink the positioning of your brand with the introduction of sustainable packaging. If needed, re-evaluate pricing and passthrough cost to consumers or create a new line of products. • Start small and make a concerted effort to collaborate with retailers and seek the voice of the customer. • Educate the consumer about your sustainability efforts. It could be as deliberate as communicating on your packing.
Reach out to partners who understand your needs and sustainability goals to maximize your chances of success. To satisfy the retailer’s 2025 sustainability goals, pull in all stakeholders to collaborate and co-create solutions.
Note: Duropac is co-Owned by Jean-Francois and Olivier Bourdeau. Since 1993, Duropac has been a family-owned Canadian business servicing the food industry. With over 25 employees, Duropac supplies innovative packaging from SQF and BRC certified global manufacturers. This year they are celebrating 15 years supporting the Meat and Poultry Ontario.