Sustainable packaging solutions in the food industry 

Many trends have influenced the food industry, but the recent shift towards sustainable packaging solutions is not just a passing trend. Adopting recyclable or compostable packaging materials is a necessary step toward reducing the environmental impact of traditional packaging materials. The transition to sustainable packaging made from plant-based materials benefits the planet and can positively affect companies that adopt compostable or recyclable packaging materials and sustainable practices. 

Felicity Kelly, Head of Sustainability at Bunzl Australia & New Zealand
Felicity Kelly, Head of Sustainability at Bunzl Australia & New Zealand

Traditional packaging materials contribute to resource depletion and pollution due to the resources and energy required for production and problems with safe disposal. One approach to mitigating the environmental impact of packaging materials is to focus on waste reduction and embrace the concept of a circular economy. This shift in focus can help businesses reduce their carbon footprint and minimize environmental harm.  

Compostable or recyclable packaging effectively reduces the environmental impact of traditional food packaging materials such as plastic. Compostable packaging materials break down naturally over time, and recycled materials minimize waste. Implementing reusable and recyclable packaging solutions reduces waste overall and promotes a circular economy approach. 

However, the food industry must educate consumers on proper recycling methods and how to dispose of compostable waste to make significant strides towards a more sustainable future. While concerns about the initial costs of adopting sustainable packaging practices and materials are valid, the long-term benefits, such as enhanced brand loyalty and appealing to a growing consumer base with a passion for reducing environmental damage, can outweigh any investment costs.  

What are the current challenges faced by the food industry in terms of packaging? 

Sustainable packaging is a crucial challenge for the food industry, and innovation will likely continue to play an important role. The main force driving the innovative developments in compostable or recyclable packaging materials comes from consumer demand that favors choice.  

Food packaging must be durable and survive multiple handling stages to deliver the product to consumers, yet it must also be recyclable or compostable wherever possible. Creating packaging materials that are both durable and compostable has traditionally been a challenge, as materials designed to break down relatively quickly into compost tend to be less robust, especially when they come into contact with water or other liquids.  

However, years of investment in research and development have led to several new materials that packaging companies can now use to create items traditionally made from plastic. For example, millions of single-use coffee cups are thrown out by Australians every single day. As plastic is used to line the cups to ensure their structural integrity, these cups end up in landfills instead of being recycled or composted. However, renewable and compostable alternatives such as cups with aqueous coatings or bio-plastic bases now exist to counteract the growing issue of single-use disposable cups; these cups are available from materials such as ethically sourced wood pulp, sugarcane or bamboo. These sustainable cups can be recycled or composted in specific conditions, significantly reducing environmental impact. 

What are the different types of sustainable packaging materials? 

Sustainable packaging materials fall into
three main categories: recyclable, reusable, and compostable: 

  • Recyclable packaging includes cardboard and paper-based materials. You can dispose of paper-based materials in recycling bins and reform them. Many cardboard and paper products are at least partially made from recycled material.  
  • Reusable packaging can include things like metal containers, glass bottles, wooden pallets, and heavy-duty plastic tote bags. These products can be used by consumers multiple times and can often be recycled when damaged. Reusable materials can initially be more expensive but are likely to be more cost-effective in the long run.
  • Compostable packaging is designed to break down into natural components and organic matter. It is a much more sustainable alternative to traditional packaging materials like plastic, which can take hundreds of years to break down.

Strategies for implementing sustainable packaging solutions in the food industry 

Many strategies are successfully used to implement sustainable food packaging solutions. First of all, packaging size is crucial, as using the correct-sized packaging can reduce transportation costs and waste. Using the right materials is important, and with modern compostable materials becoming expected for companies involved in food packaging, finding the right material type is key. Using automation in the packaging process is another strategy that can increase productivity while reducing waste. 

  • When choosing materials, single-use plastics should be eliminated in favor of plant-based compostable materials. 
  • Choose snug-fitting packaging wherever possible to reduce material usage and avoid using oversized or overly complex packaging that requires special or specific transportation.
  • Use technology and automation to improve efficiency in packaging processes. Automating and standardizing packaging processes reduces damage and material consumption.

It should be noted that many consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for food packaged using compostable or recyclable materials. Addressing the negative environmental impact caused by single-use food packaging is crucial for consumer satisfaction and can enhance brand reputation. Aligning with consumer preferences to promote sustainability is essential to maximizing sales. 

Benefits of sustainable packaging 

Recyclable containersThe benefits of switching to sustainable food packaging materials include: 

  • Less product package waste.
  • Decreasing packaging-related costs in the long run through efficient use of resources and materials.
  • Using renewable, compostable, and reusable materials to reduce the negative impact on the environment.
  • Improving brand image by appealing to customers who are conscious of environmental issues.

The shift in the food industry to sustainable materials is not simply a passing trend but an essential step towards a future that is kinder to the environment. Embracing recyclable and compostable materials can help businesses mitigate resource depletion and reduce pollution and waste.  

This can be done while appealing to a passionate, growing customer base that prioritizes environmental issues. Despite some initial investment costs, the long-term benefits can make the adoption of sustainable packaging materials worthwhile
in environmental and financial terms.  

By Felicity Kelly, Head of Sustainability at Bunzl Australia & New Zealand

For a list of the sources used in this article, please contact the editor. 

Felicity Kelly is the Head of Sustainability at Bunzl Australia & New Zealand. She assists organizations in enhancing their sustainability performance and reputation, as well as managing their entire value chain through stakeholder engagement, communication, risk management, problem-solving, strategy development, and execution. Felicity holds a master’s degree in Corporate Environmental and Sustainability Management from Monash University. She has extensive experience working across various sectors, primarily in Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) and logistics.