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Is That a Candy Bar Wrapper in My Tomato Garden?

Tossing cans and cardboard into the recycling bin is so old-school. Welcome to Sustainability 2.0, where it’s perfectly cool to throw your trash out the window — provided it lands in the vegetable garden.

An emerging material is reshaping the packaging and CPG industries by taking trash from recycling bin to compost bin. Packages created with plant-based, renewable and compostable film don’t have to be wadded up, pitched in the right trash can, dragged to the curb and hauled away in a garbage truck. Made from cellulose, these bags and wrappers can go right back where they came from: into the ground, where they biodegrade into natural biomass with no detour to an industrial composter.

By packaging their products in renewable bio-films such as Innovia Films’ NatureFlex, brands give consumers a big boost of power and pride from their contribution to solving the world’s environmental problems. Consumers are several steps removed from other green solutions such as alternative power and organic farming. But packaging? It’s real, it’s in their hands — and it has to be dealt with or it piles up.

But bio-films don’t just make consumers happy; they protect, preserve, display and promote products as well — or better — than traditional petrochemical-based packaging.

These materials aren’t new; they’re built on technology initiated in the 1900s with the development of cellulose-based material. Marketers, packagers and engineers have decades of experience printing, converting, sealing, shipping and shelving products protected in these bio-films.

In an era when CPG brands are making claims on boxes and bags about their products (natural, non-toxic, not tested on animals, dolphin safe, sustainably sourced) and their processes (manufactured with renewable energy), renewable packaging adds a powerful message about the brand’s environmental commitment. Sustainable packaging gives the consumer yet another reason to choose one product over another; it’s a meaningful brand differentiator. Bio-films serve the needs of every player in the chain, from the manufacturer who wants to keep products fresh, to the retailer who wants to bolster the brand to the consumers who wants to feel good about their purchases.

Protecting the product is the principal role of any packaging. Bio-films such as NatureFlex have several advantages over current petrochemical-based packaging, including the renewable nature of their raw materials, their functionality and their end-of-life (a.k.a. garbage) phase.

Starting with Sustainable Raw Materials

If you want a candy wrapper you can toss in with your grass clippings, its best that wrapper be made from compostable materials. Bio-films such as NatureFlex are made with renewable wood pulp sourced from managed plantations; they break down naturally because they are natural. 

Most current packaging is made of plastic that comes from a finite global supply of non-renewable, resources. Worldwide, more than 100 million tons and 50% of all goods are packaged in various forms of petrochemical-based plastic. Plastic technology has many inherent attributes that are engineered for specific applications; for example, plastic packaging allows for longer shelf-life for many food products, reducing food waste, enabling transportation to remote locations — and inadvertently creating a massive, swirling pile of garbage in the Pacific Ocean.

As manufacturers, retailers and consumers become increasingly aware of the challenges (in declining supply and long-term environmental impact) of using finite raw materials such as petrochemicals, sustainable alternatives are not only surfacing but expanding. And as production of these films scales up and we begin to realize the economy of scale for energy, bio-packaging will surpass the petro-based plastics in achieving a low carbon footprint.

If we’re going to make a meaningful dent in that 100 million tons of plastic that end up in the trash, it’ll take a real partnership effort, with packaging suppliers continuing to innovate and you — manufacturers, CPG companies, retailers — specifying plant-based bio-films for your products.

It’s already happening: In the U.S., industry and government alike are pushing investment, R&D and legislation designed to encourage renewable materials. Importantly for consumers who want to feel confident that what they’re buying has a minimal environmental footprint, efforts are underway to establish standards and labeling guidelines. For example, the USDA Bio-Preferred program has created a label for bio-based content in products and packaging.     

Meeting Essential Packaging Requirements

Every end-use flexible package has three primary functions: appearance, barrier and containment. The development of petrochemical-based technology over several decades has refined these functional attributes in literally thousands of products and applications. 

The current development of renewable and compostable packaging material is focused on providing the same functional attributes inherent in traditional plastic.

Even with petrochemical films, a package typically requires multiple layers with different characteristics (such as printability, stiffness, anti-static, moisture transfer) in order to meet the three needs of appearance, barrier and containment; rarely does a single material meet all those requirements.

Like their petrochemical counterparts, NatureFlex and other bio-films also have different capabilities that can be combined in layers to create a package that’s perfectly engineered to enclose, protect and identify the product it holds.

Creating an ‘Earth-to-Earth’ Life Cycle

Once a package has served its intended purpose of identifying and protecting the product inside, the material is disposed — likely in the closest trash bin. So the development of alternatives to petrochemical-based packaging has focused on what happens at that end-of-life stage.

Where does that garbage end up? Let’s take a look:

In North America, traditional plastic packaging makes up 16% to 25% of landfill content. Several estimates suggest that a staggering 10 billion pounds of plastic are added to our landfills every year, and plastic packaging is a major contributor. Even if consumers were super diligent about recycling rigid plastics, paper and paperboard, glass, etc., we’d still have about 60 million tons a year of organic waste that could be recycled organically into energy and natural fertilizers.

The renewable and compostable materials being engineered today are designed to: 

1. Serve their purpose for packaging, and

2. Be recycled organically at the end of that functional life.

Globally, an infrastructure that’s currently being developed for organic waste can break down compostable packages along with other organic matter. These bio materials are not only made from renewable natural resources, they’re returned to the environment as fertilizers and soil amendments in a “cradle-to-cradle” — or rather, “earth-to-earth” — life cycle.

Making a Case for Bio-Packaging

While we’re still too early in the game to see meaningful ROI data on the use of renewable/compostable packaging films, market evidence shows that brands that transition to sustainable materials such as NatureFlex stick with them. That suggests that consumer demand and bottom-line business success support the adoption of sustainable wraps and bags.

Brands that switch to bio-film packaging have generated plenty of goodwill among their customers, much like Arbor Tea has accomplished by aligning their brand and packaging, using Innovia Films’ NatureFlex to create a fully compostable package. Also, BASF got a lot of positive press when they teamed up with the Seattle Mariners to give 10,000 fans a bag of peanuts in 100% compostable packaging.   

As a rule, consumers don’t consciously think about product packaging — until they realize the environmental impact of packaging waste and their own power to make a difference. And when they have a choice between an item that’s wrapped in a traditional plastic bag and one that’s packaged in bio-based material, it becomes easy for them to choose the more sustainably packaged product.

A package is the face of a brand; it’s more than an identifier, it’s a significant marketing asset. It’s the first thing the consumer sees when he picks your product up off the shelf, and the last thing he sees when he discards it.

Therein lies a bold opportunity to make that consumer feel great about the product at every one of those touch points. When that package is renewable, compostable and plant-based — and it’s labeled as such — it sends a powerful message that turns buyers into brand loyalists.

Chris Mitchell is a highly experienced packaging industry executive with an impressive 20-year history in the flexible packaging sector.  Over the course of his career, he has worked for a number of the industry’s leading organizations including International Paper,… [Read more about Christopher Mitchell]

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