Can innovative packaging reduce food waste?

James Cropper tastes recycling success by turning the shells of cocoa beans into paper.
James Cropper tastes recycling success by turning the shells of cocoa beans into paper.
By  Suzanne Vallance 1st July 2016

Small changes in behaviour and continued innovation around packaging keep food fresher for longer, saves money and reduces waste promoting sustainability.

From scraps of food to the packaging that protects it, we’re chucking reusable materials straight into the bin wasting money and damaging the environment while we are at it.

In the UK, households waste over seven million tonnes of food each year. On top of that, we throw 1.7 million tonnes of plastic packaging straight into the bin.

Almost 50% of the total amount of food thrown away in the UK comes from our homes, therefore if we were more careful with our waste this number could reduce significantly.

HEXIS, The battle, World Tour.

It is hoped that the image of packaging can make the transition from environmental villain to environmental hero. Packaging designers across the world are trying to solve this problem by using wasted food for packaging – genius right?

Facts about packaging waste

Environmental sustainability and business don’t always go hand in hand, especially when it comes to product packaging. Some of the most common household packages – including potato chip bags, pizza boxes and toothpaste tubes – often aren’t recyclable. For companies hoping to woo sustainability-minded customers, this can be a real problem. 

Even though it makes up a small part of a product’s environmental impact (pdf), packaging is the first thing that consumers see, and it can heavily influence their buying decisions.

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Mark Dancy, president of WasteZero, a US-based waste reduction company, said The Guardian that while fast advancing technologies can boost green friendly packaging, many companies continue to commit packaging mistakes.

The main problem, he argues, is that, when it comes to packaging, most companies focus on two priorities: “how will this drive consumers to my product and how much does this cost”. For some, environmental sustainability is a third, less important concern. “But realistically, most look at the first two,” he says. 

We have a look at some sustainable packaging innovations that can help consumers reduce the amount of food wasted and encourage recyclability as its end of life.

Do whey more with cheese

Printing and packaging companies probably care more about the creation of new materials, such as plastics from renewables or waste from other industries. Whey is one such possibility and it could have interesting ramifications for packaging printing and inks.

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New sustainable packaging option using whey protein

Whey is produced as waste from cheesemaking, once the protein solids have been separated out. It turns up in protein rich processed foods, carbonated drinks, and fertilisers. It’s actually pretty good for you as it contains both protein and healthy sugars and has long been used in baking.

Now scientists in Italy have come up with a method to turn whey into plastics. The product has good mechanical properties and has promising prospects for use in packaging materials. It could even end up replacing polyethylene which has enjoyed a reign of over 50 years.

Maria Beatrice Coltelli, a researcher in material science at DICI-UNIPI in the University of Pisa, uses whey granules to create a thin plastic film. The film can be layered with cardboard and aluminium to create a multilayered packaging material.

This bioplastic is easy to recycle and is expected to eventually replace plastic film. “We have tested how simple it is to separate the layers – it’s important to recover the polyethylene, the aluminium and most of all the fibres, which are very useful in producing recycled cardboard,” said Marco Buchignani, head of paper quality control at Lucense in Italy.

Nutty Packaging: Hazelnut Shells

Everyone loves the thick chocolate taste of Nutella. Whether we are smothering it on toast or eating it straight of the spoon, Nutella is something the majority of people will have stashed in their cupboard. Produced by world-renowned chocolate maker, Ferrero, Nutella gets its wonderful taste from hazelnuts of course.

The Italian company is the world’s biggest buyer of hazelnuts, using 25% of the world’s supply and making 180m kg of its Nutella spread each year, according to the Italian Trade Agency. As a result, it has plenty of hazelnut shells to play with.

“We have access to large amounts of residual by-products which we realised could be used constructively,” a project co-ordinator at Ferrero said to The Guardian. The company’s idea is to use the nuts’ natural wrapping to create packaging for its chocolates.

Ferrero has teamed up with renewable packaging company Stora Enso, and PTS, a German Research institute, to develop the so-called EcoPaper, as part of a €1.2m (£870m) project , which is 50% funded by the European Union. 

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The group is still experimenting on the ideal mixture of nutshell fibres in the pulp, but so far it works well for stiffness and bulk. 

The experimental packaging material is produced by dry-milling the hazelnut shells, then adding them to the middle layer of a triplex folding box board, where they fill some of the space usually occupied by virgin cellulose fibres.

With this technology the waste materials are up-cycled as raw materials for board production and not being treated as waste anymore which leads to a more sustainable and more economical packaging.

Its short-term goal is to produce packaging with 20% hazelnut content. In the long-term perspective, the technology is expected to be able to consume 50% of available confectionary waste (hazelnut shells, cocoa bean skins) resulting in 750.000 – 1.5 million tons of paper every year.

Tomato Plant Recycling

The tomato is much loved by Europeans - it forms the basis of many recipes, whether fresh or tinned. But what happens to tomato by-product waste? 

Once a year, a residual flow of 85 million kg of tomato plants is released and composted by the growers. Instead of composting, it is possible now to turn these plants into a valuable raw material that, in combination with old paper fibres, can be processed into solid board. 
 
Tomato plants get new life with fibres used in solid board packaging strict xxl
An example of the packaging in 0.7 to 1kg vine tomatoes for Harvest House.
 
This unique production process takes place at the Solidus Solutions plants, where the solid board is  further converted into a large variety of packaging.  
 
This allows tomatoes to be packaged in their own plant fibre! In addition, the packaging made of this solid board enriched with tomato plant fibres is totally  recyclable. Thus the raw materials are reused to  the maximum extent and we contribute to the circular economy.  
 
In order to arrive at this development, Solidus Solution has been collaborating for the past few years with a unique consortium of partners in the Westland region, called Bio Base Westland. Solidus Solutions already produced packaging for three kg and five kg of tomatoes from this type of solid board.

Cocoa Husks Packaging

Chocolate packaging is a big business, it’s shiny, bright and looks great but where does it all go? Waste is the answer. For every metric ton of dry cocoa bean produced, there are 10 tons of husks leftover as waste. Wouldn’t it be great if we could develop a recyclable form of packaging for all that chocolate that we eat?  

UK packaging supplier James Cropper has developed bio-recyclable paper packaging partially made from the husks of cocoa beans supplied by Barry Callebaut.

The paper contains around 10% cocoa husk content and the rest is made from unbleached cellulose fiber. The result is a light brown paper package that uses cocoa as the natural colorant, avoiding the need for artificial dyes.

Unlike other cocoa recycling processes, the bio-recycling solution does not involve the burning or gradual degrading of the fibres of the cocoa husks, claimed the Lake District-based business.

James Cropper produces the paper packaging at its own facilities using cocoa husks supplied by Barry Callebaut, which previously approached James Cropper in order to find an environmentally-friendly solution for its cocoa waste.

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James Cropper has announced a trial recycling partnership with McDonald’s UK, as the two explore pioneering moves in sustainability and recycling.
 

As we can see, many technological solutions to agri-food waste already exist and only need to be more effectively shared and affordably adapted to local contexts.  

The EU has ambitious plans for 75% of packaging waste to be recycled by 2030. Of course, smaller businesses today most likely won’t be able to invest in these innovative designs, but steps can be made to reduce the carbon footprints of companies no matter their budget.

Overall, however, the big challenge for manufacturers is to develop alternative forms of packaging to replace those current ones that are made from materials that are not sustainable, and can't very easily be modified to be made sustainable.

This article is published in collaboration with Suzanne Vallance from Ferrari.