Sustainability has been a buzz word across industries for many years. In the global food and beverage market, initiatives anchored on meeting present business needs with less environmental impact and without compromising future generations are not something new. But as food supply and safety concerns and climatic changes impact more people around the world, sustainability has taken on a more urgent tone, prodding not just businesses and organisations but even consumers to take action or rethink current strategies.
In the global F&B packaging market, sustainability is driving product development and the shift to a circular economy. On the business side, the need to lower production costs and reduce material usage whilst creating durable and lightweight packaging solutions is influencing decisions to head in this direction. Many take the sustainability route in response to the trend for conscious consumerism or to help boost their public image.
Photo © Mikko Pitkänen / Alias Studiot Oy I Dreamstime.com
Besides environmental awareness, greater emphasis on health and wellness is shaping consumer packaging demands. Urbanisation, increasing disposable income and purchasing power, and convenience are likewise influencing trends, spurring the rise of diverse packaging solutions to match lifestyle changes. Smaller, to-go options, for example, try to meet the requirements of users always on the run.
E-commerce is another force of change in the packaging sector. To address the needs of online shoppers, internet retailing needs packaging that is easy and quick to produce and can withstand the rigors of shipping to ensure items are delivered on time and in good quality. Packaging also needs to be versatile and creative to attract online shoppers.
Environment-friendly packaging is a strong trend in e-commerce, with consumers looking for eco products and brands pursuing long-term corporate responsibility programs either as part of their commitment to the environment or in line with branding strategies. This last, coupled with the desire to meet end-user preferences, is fuelling the rise of premium-designed or premium-level packaging.
Integrating life cycle thinking in packaging
Henky Wibawa, executive director of the Indonesian Packaging Federation (IPF), and also vice president for Education at World Packaging Organization (WPO) Executive Team, underscores the need for life cycle thinking in pushing for a truly sustainable approach to packaging in the F&B market. This means including the environmental, social and economic impact of a product over its entire life cycle and not merely focusing on the manufacturing side and its effects.
“It's a shift in thinking that requires looking at all the areas throughout a product's life cycle from sourcing raw materials to manufacturing to packaging and transport to even waste disposal and their corresponding effects. Besides providing a holistic view, it shows that the processes in the entire chain are all linked together and that changing one stage can impact the others. It also shows that we can reduce consumption and still improve the product at each stage,” said Mr Wibawa.
Henky Wibawa, executive director of the Indonesian Packaging Federation (IPF) and
vice president for Education at World Packaging Organization (WPO) Executive Team
Mr Wibawa outlined how Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) can help in evaluating the environmental impact of products and packaging during the 2020 ASEAN Food & Beverage Manufacturing Summit Advances in Formulation, Processing, and Packaging last September. As LCA is not limited to executive level and strategic management and can in fact be used in product development and R&D, supply chain management and procurement, and even marketing and sales, Mr Wibawa said during the virtual webinar that LCA can help in deciding on and designing eco-friendly and sustainable packaging solutions.
LCA can look into the downstream and upstream processes to help companies make informed and intelligent decisions. Mr Wibawa said a product life cycle can be seen as cradle to grave, with the inception of the product through raw material sourcing as cradle and grave as disposal. Between these two end points are the transport (of materials), manufacturing, packaging and use. With a cradle-to-gate life cycle, the use and disposal stages are excluded and the life cycle ends at the packaging stage, discounting the hidden costs of using the product and then disposing of it later.
Mr Wibawa noted that pursuing an eco design remains to be a top management decision. “But the really important question is: What should go into an eco design? Designing a packaging factors in so many things – consumer safety and information, material efficiency, ease of handling and use, shelf life and promotional concerns. Protecting the product and providing consumer information – an eco design covers these as well. But reducing the impact on the environment should also be a core requirement in an eco packaging design,” Mr Wibawa stressed.
The Asian route to sustainable packaging
With the Asia Pacific consuming the most plastic globally and therefore contributing the biggest to the world's plastic pollution, manufacturers are hard-pressed to look for more sustainable production materials and processes to help address the problem.
Asia's growing economy and resulting urbanisation and high population density, plus poor waste management systems in many countries in the region, make it a hotspot for environmental problems.
The shift in thinking as regards plastic consumption is driving more of the region's F&B packaging manufacturers to revisit how they use plastic or look for a greener alternative. This, in turn, is adding momentum to the push for a circular economy that aims to eliminate waste and extend use of resources.
“We need to move from a linear economy to a circular economy because we need a more sustainable economy. We need to learn from nature: The same way that the water we use and value so much has a natural cycle, the way we use materials and resources should also follow a correct cycle,” Mr Wibawa said.
Asia is already making headway in eco-friendly food packaging. The global eco-friendly food packaging is forecast by Markets&Markets to hit US$249.5 billion by 2025 at a CAGR of 7.4 percent, and the Asia Pacific is seen as experiencing the biggest growth on the back of urbanisation, lifestyle changes and stringent regulations.
Asia's flexible packaging market is robust as well, with Transparency Market Research projecting the sector will experience a CAGR of 5.7% to reach US$6.7 billion from 2016 to 2024. In Indonesia, Mr Wibawa noted that flexible packaging is the largest and fastest-growing packaging segment. But brand consciousness amongst consumers and the need to lower packaging costs amongst businesses continue to pose a challenge.
“Sustainability, in particular in plastic packaging, remains a key issue. Besides lightweight packaging, trends points to new materials, greater recyclability and smart packaging,” Mr Wibawa said.
IPF, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organisation in Indonesia’s packaging industry, works with its members in improving packaging quality and technology development. It encourages research and development on packaging innovations and collaborates with the Asian Packaging Federation (APF) and World Packaging Organisation (WPO) of which it is a member.
Early efforts in Europe
Even as more food packaging companies in Asia are pursuing sustainability, even shifting to a circular economy model, Mr Wibawa noted much remains to be done.
“There are not that many commercial closed-loop recycling technologies available and most recycling being done is downcycle. We need to increase the emphasis on reuse,” he stressed.
Mr Wibawa sees the importance of improving recycling technologies and economic viability and improving waste management and collection system to prevent leakage. In addition, he emphasises the need for designing proper end-of-life or return to earth or recapture systems in an effective after-use plastics economy.
In Europe, the circular economy approach is gaining traction, with manufacturers, including those in the F&B industry, starting to appreciate the value of upcycling mechanisms. Earlier this year, the European Commission (EC) presented a new Circular Economy Action Plan that provides a roadmap for sustainable sourcing and manufacturing across the bloc. F&B stakeholders within the EU welcomed this development, noting how the F&B sector is a key driver in realising said vision.
Mr Wibawa pointed out during the 2020 ASEAN Food & Beverage Manufacturing Summit the initiatives thus far by the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX), a collaboration of more than 160 European companies, associations and organisations from the flexible packaging value chain, in flexible packaging design.
“Besides helping to disprove or address myths about flexible packaging, CEFLEX is providing guidelines on design flexible packaging. CEFLEX's Designing for a Circular Economy helps companies design packaging solutions that are recyclable,” said Mr Wibawa.
A community effort
No matter the design or guiding principles to be adopted, Mr Wibawa said that a circular economy should focus on reducing the use of natural raw materials and resources and save energy, thereby ensuring the raw materials do not run out because they go back to the cycle. It should also provide income to all stakeholders and help in eliminating pollution, in particular plastic pollution.
Achieving a circular economy is a team effort, according to Mr Wibawa, that requires all stakeholders – from the government to the private sector to the community – to do their part.
Mr Wibawa noted the government's role in regulatory support and law enforcement, including that for minimum recycle content for plastic goods. Governments should likewise handle R&D at the institution level, support infrastructure development for plastic recycle, provide incentives for the plastic recycle industry and manage public education on managing plastic waste.
The private sector can handle R&D on the industrial level and partner with the government on extended producer responsibility (EPR). Private companies can undertake or improve their CSR initiatives pertaining to the environment and minimise untreated potential product wastes.
“As for the community, compliance with regulations and implementing waste sorting practices go a long way. Encouraging the use of recycled plastics and improving public awareness about waste issues will definitely contribute to making the circular economy a reality,” Mr Wibawa shared.
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