Sustainability and business don’t always go hand in hand, especially when it comes to product packaging. Even common household packages often aren’t recyclable. For Wessanen, as a company that aims to be part of a greener future, packaging is a real issue. Even though it makes up only a small part of a product’s environmental impact, there is much potential for improvement. Marcel Keuenhof, European Packaging Manager, about current issues and how Wessanen tries to solve them:
What are general
packaging issues and why do we need product packaging at all?
In a world were non-renewable resources become
scarce, it is essential to preserve them, amongst others by striving for a
circular model. Packaging is often seen as the visible waste of food, but what
we forget is that its primary function is to protect the product inside during
transport and handling. It should protect the food from contamination, spoilage
& physical damage (breakage, discoloring, etc), maintain the quality and
help avoiding food waste. Indeed, the environmental impact of packaging
represents (only) a small part of the total product impact: depending on the
type of food it packages, it can be as low as 1%, but on average it is around 10%
source: INCPEN, Table for one. 2009, The
Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment: Reading.
Therefore, whilst Wessanen most certainly believes in and
actively works towards reduction of the environmental impact of our packaging,
this should not be at the expense of the product quality, food safety and shelf
life (all of which impact food waste).
environmental impact – what are further risks when it comes to product
Besides the important function of creating an actual barrier
against contamination from the outside (micro-organisms, dirt, etc), packaging
can also represent a chemical risk in itself, when certain components migrate
into the product. When France banned the use of Bisphenol A as of beginning
2015, we took this opportunity to remove Bisphenol A from all our products sold
in France but also in other countries. Absence of Bisphenol is a requirement in
our policy on innovations.
Another contamination from packaging material that recently
came to our attention (through the authorities but also helped by a report
published by Foodwatch in 2015), are the residues from (among others) printing
inks in recycled paper and board. These so-called Mineral Oil Hydrocarbons have
a hazardous effect on the human body and unfortunately cannot be removed
completely in the paper recycling process. Therefore we are performing a risk
assessment on all our packaging formats and are addressing specific issues.
materials is a first step. How does this look like exactly? Are there further
plans to improve Wessanen’s (product) packaging?
We have finalized our packaging policy for our innovations
to address both environmental and chemical risks. This policy covers general
topics like preferring recyclable material, using FSC or PEFC certified sources
when recycled paper/board is not possible, reducing empty space inside the
packaging and on the pallet, but also specific ones like avoiding PVC and using
low-migration or bio-based/vegetable inks for printing on our packaging.
In order to track our performance, we are measuring the
amount of packaging material we put onto the market, expressing it as the ratio
versus packed product. When we started doing this, it showed that have put 15.074 tons of packaging material on the
market in 2014, which means a ratio of 0.15 kg of packaging material per kg of
packed product. In 2015 we do see a significant rise in the total weight of
material (19.855 tons), which is
mainly due to a number of brands that Wessanen acquired that year. The more
important figure in the light of sustainability, would be the packaging-product
ratio, which actually dropped to 0.12
, partially due to the acquisition of the Isola Bio brand of dairy alternatives
which have a low packaging-product ratio.
Our goal is to further reduce this ratio through actively
analysing and optimising our different packaging formats.
Product packaging is only
one part. Let’s talk about waste occurring during Wessanen’s supply chain.
Waste can occur at different levels in our supply chain,
anywhere between harvesting and consumption (‘from farm to fork’). For the
steps that are under our direct control, we track waste levels and actively try
to reduce it. Our factories apply best practices to limit waste material. For
example, Abafoods and Bio Slym in Italy, dry the by-products from cereal
extraction and produce animal feed out of it. Our Clipper tea site sends any
waste tea (bags) to a methanisation site. Packaging material waste during
production is sent for recycling as much as possible, for example broken glass
jars & bottles, corrugated layer pads on pallets, plastic pallet wrapping
material, and so forth.
We try to reduce products that are no longer suitable for
sale (out of date) to an absolute minimum. As an example, take our French
warehouse for Bonneterre products: it has reduced product destruction by 50% in
Q1 2015 versus the same period in 2014. If for whatever reason products cannot
be sold, but they are still suitable for human consumption, we try rescuing it
as much as possible by donating to food banks, for example. In 2015, we have
donated equivalent of 516 k€ to food banks.
What do you think the
future of product packaging will look like?
Even though developments like e-commerce and ‘the Internet
of Things’ might change the look of our packaging, it is my expectation that (food)
packaging overall will remain rather similar in appearance because of its
primary function of transporting the product from the manufacturer to the
consumer, meanwhile protecting its content from contamination, spoilage & physical
damage. Other functions, like communication with the consumer, attracting their
attention, displaying essential information might be more susceptible to change
due to the rise of smart(er) packaging materials, printable electronics, and
I do hope and expect that packaging solutions will have a
lower environmental impact. For this we should not only look at the materials
they are made of, but the sustainability of the entire foodchain, which besides
packaging would also include the impact of the food itself (and food waste),
transportation, refridgeration, etc.
The materials themselves will be more & easier recycled, transforming from
so-called down-cycling (as we see with plastic currently) to real, ‘closed-loop’
recycling. Also I expect to see more bio-based materials being developed and
used, helping the industry to lower its dependancy on fossil fuel. The
challenge there will be to make sure we’re not competing with the food supply of
humans or animals.
Finally, with the major issue of plastic ending up in our environment &
oceans, I do think that we’ll reconsider and increase the focus on bio-degradability
of packaging materials, even though it currently does not fit with our waste