Year End Wrap-Up: Packaging Updates

Posted on 12/12/2014 10:16:06 AM By Jeff Timm

Year end is always a good time to look back on the year and think about what the next year might have in store.  I’ll leave the forecasting to others, but devote this time to update activities on some of my past blogs.

The following updates with some further discussions will be covered:

Carton recycling and composition

‘Green’ product claims

The continuing emphasis on collaboration

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in Packaging

Carton recycling and composition

Back in February 2014 I blogged about Carton Recycling, discussing how cartons have become a relatively new player in the items being picked up at your curbside recycling pick up point. Mentioned in the blog was a description of the two traditional carton types:  shelf-stable and refrigerated.  Cartons are mainly made from paper in the form of paperboard, and have a thin layer of polyethylene (PE).  The shelf-stable ones also have a thin layer of aluminum.  Shelf-stable cartons contain on average 74% paper, 22% polyethylene and 4% aluminum by weight.  Refrigerated cartons contain about 80% paper and 20% polyethylene by weight. Common items packaged in shelf-stable cartons include juice, milk (including soy and grain varieties) and soup/broth and wine.  Products commonly packaged in refrigerated cartons are milk, juice, cream and egg substitutes. 

The Carton Council of North America states cartons are now being recycled by 48% of U. S. households, which represents a 16.4% increase since 2012.  While this increase in the number of households that are able to recycle cartons is great news, of even potentially equally significant news, is the introduction within the past year of a number of iterations of the traditional Tetra Pak® carton using 100% biobased Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) in the construction. 


A newer development is the introduction of the first carton, Tetra Rex®, to be made from low density polyethylene (LDPE) films and bio-based high-density polyethylene (HDPE) caps, both derived from sugar cane, in addition to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paperboard.​

tetra-pak cartons

Braskem is the development partner supplying the I'M GREEN™ PE from its facility in Brazil.  It needs to be noted that the I'M GREEN™ PE is not biodegradable and thus cannot be composted.  The I’M GREEN™ PE is designed as a drop-in polyethylene product, which can be processed and recycled just like petrochemical based polyethylene.

 ‘Green’ product claims

My packaging blog has discussed the importance and impact of the  FTC Green Guides and the European Bioplastics – Accountability Is Key – Environmental Communications Guide for Bioplastics  numerous times.  Both of these are reader-friendly guidelines aimed at helping marketers ensure that the claims they make about the environmental attributes of their products are truthful and non-deceptive.

A new player to this space, but not a new player in the certification world, is Underwriters Laboratories (UL).  UL Environment has developed a guideline - Under the Lens: Claiming Green Report.  While being an excellent tool to help develop certification guidelines, this report has a very unique twist.  It employs a survey conducted by the Shelton Group, which analyzes the influence of green product claims on purchase intent and brand perception.  The Shelton Group is a leading marketing communications agency entirely focused on the sustainability and energy efficiency sectors. Download and read this report before any environmental claims are developed for your packages.  It is a must read, and if adhered to, will keep you out of trouble.

The Continuing Emphasis on Collaboration

It seems that any business or trade journal/website article, regardless of the industry, has discussed collaboration as a key to product development success in the new millennium.  Driven by open innovation (OI) and co-development principles, collaboration ranks right up there with sustainability as the two most important mega trends in the packaging industry today.  Many of my packaging blog posts have mentioned collaboration as a necessity when developing new markets, including my August 2014 post: Innovation—Some Thoughts.

While most collaboration occurs at the company to company level, a recent collaborative effort taking place is the start-up of the World Plastic Council (WPC) and its initiatives on marine debris and post-consumer recycling and energy recovery as its initial top priorities.  PlasticsEurope and the American Chemistry Council plastics division announced the new organization in 2013, and they had their first general assembly in November, 2014.  The WPC is designed to serve as the voice of global plastics manufacturers and to facilitate a united approach to address global opportunities and issues facing the industry, society and consumers.  Their choice of initial focus bodes well with developing an industry-wide unified force to address the most glaring negative public image of plastic – marine debris.  Additionally, their tangential focus – post-consumer recycling—recognizes that to achieve a recycling rate above 50% in the United States will require a universal approach with plastic resin manufacturers in the mix to achieve broader success.  The current fragmented approach, municipality to municipality, just will not get us there.

Another recent collaborative alliance that is contributing to and continuing the rapid acceleration of the recycle rate of clear thermoformed plastic containers (clam shells, deli take-out, cups, blister packs, etc.) is the effort of the SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association and the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR)  pilot grant program designed to increase and promote the recovery of PET (polyethylene terephthalate, resin identification code (RIC) #1) thermoforms.

The three program grantee organizations collectively recovered and sold more than 600,000 pounds of PET thermoforms throughout the life of the two-year grant and achieved the program goal to create sustainable PET thermoform recycling models that could be replicated in other markets.  For an outstanding analysis of this program and PET thermoform recycling in general, read Chandler Slavin’s, Sustainability Coordinator for Dordan Manufacturing, Dordan Blog.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in Packaging

My June 2014 Packaging Blog - Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) - What’s the Scoop? –discussed the state of GMO food products used in packaging materials like bioplastics.  A recent update from the European Union (EU) looks like the national governments of their members, after provisional political agreement on the draft legislation on GMO cultivation by the European Parliament and Council, will be given the power to have the final say in the approval of cultivation of GMO products even if they have been approved by the safety authority of the 28 nation bloc.  Member European states have been applying constant pressure to better take into account their national context and, above all, the views of their citizens. This decision is a huge compromise and follows the EU guidelines that give the democratically elected governments at least the same weight as scientific advice when it comes to important decisions concerning food and environment.

Some could construe this action as a blow against science – giving the final say to the people over the reality that no one has yet to provide any credible evidence by any science body or notable science journal stating that it is harmful to eat genetically modified foods. 

Like many of the issues that receive a lot of attention from the public consumer sector, the science does not always match up with the media attention or consumer perceived understanding of these issues.

What is in store for 2015 for the packaging industry? 

Certainly recycling and sustainability will continue to be in the top tier of activity.  Will 2015 be the year bioplastics final reach critical mass?  Will the drop in oil prices and conversion to shale oil and gas production drive down virgin plastic resin prices so they approach parity with recycled plastic resin prices thereby eliminating those applications where recycle is used for cost reduction only?  Will the consumer continue to demand sustainable and recycled offerings even though actual consumer demand leading to sales has waned in the past few years?  Stay tuned next year…  

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