Sustainable food packaging: much more than just using less plastics

14 May 2021


Nowadays, discussions about new food packaging concepts are mainly focussed on sustainability: which choices can we make to lower our environmental impact and better protect the environment from undesirable waste? The most straightforward answer seems to be ‘using less plastics’. Unfortunately, this is a too one-sided picture. Tim van Caelenberg, Packaging Lead at Puratos, explains why sustainable food packaging development is much broader than just plastic elimination and replacement.

The multidimensionality of packaging sustainability

Packaging development and design has become a complex matter. Multiple aspects of packaging materials and technologies should be combined to be successful today, according to Tim van Caelenberg. A particular field which attracted a great deal of attention over the last few years is packaging sustainability. 

When it comes to the environmental aspects of packaging, the first thing that comes to mind is often plastic reduction or elimination. However, sustainability is about much more than that. “At this moment, many players in the field like to say that creating more sustainable packaging equals using less plastic, but that’s way too easy, and even incorrect. Packaging choices always have to be seen in relation to the products that have to be protected. That’s not only true for the choice of packaging materials, but also for the packaging design. Think about packaging barriers that extend product shelf life, or an appropriate packaging design that allows full emptying of the package of sticky food products. The most sustainable choice takes all relevant aspects into account, including avoiding food spills.”


Packaging materials: plastic bashing is not the way forward

Much has been said about sustainable materials. It seems to have become the norm to condemn plastics as being bad for the environment. “Pressured by public opinion and images of the plastic soup, many players in the field want to eliminate plastic. They push to switch to all kinds of coated paper and cardboard alternatives, stating that’s better for the environment. But that’s too easy; paper and coated cardboard might even increase the environmental impact of a packaging solution! It takes a lot of trees, water and fossil fuels to produce these materials. Moreover, paper or cardboard coated with polymer layers is seldomly recycled but goes to incineration or landfills. They are definitely not the holy grail.

It is important to be aware of this and thoroughly understand the downstream processing of packaging. In many cases, sustainability is full of assumptions and perceptions. That’s why Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), measuring the product environmental footprint (PEF) – the total environmental impact of a product on our environment – becomes more and more important. LCA includes parameters such as carbon emissions, land use and water use, making it possible to make well-informed decisions about raw materials, processing technologies and packaging materials. The data give true insight in the product sustainability.”

Focus on end-of-life

Of course, the problems of plastic litter are very serious and they should absolutely be tackled. But not necessarily by completely rejecting plastic materials. “Poor waste management is absolutely the issue here. We need to focus on the end-of-life of products; on better waste management and by making sure that used materials can be recycled and reused in a proper way. Plastic is a very interesting raw material that can prevent food waste much better than paper or cardboard can, because of its barrier characteristics. It is strong, protects vulnerable products during transport and protects them from contamination or damage by moisture, humidity, microorganisms, gases and light. Technically, most plastics are lightweight materials, suitable for recycling into new (non-food) applications, thus bridging a certain degree of circularity. Due to strict food safety requirements, primary food packaging materials can only be downcycled into non-food applications nowadays. Bottles in PET are an exception to that.”

Recycle, reuse, reduce

Recycling is of paramount importance in the packaging vision of Puratos. Van Caelenberg: “We are always looking for better ways to operate in a more sustainable way. By turning our packaging concepts into recyclable-ready solutions, by having a scope on pooling systems and by reducing the amount of packaging materials and thus minimising our impact on the environment. 

In our opinion, food packaging plays a crucial role in preventing food waste, which carries a much larger environmental impact than the packaging itself. We should never see the packaging as a separate identity; we view it as a highly functional part of the product. Adapting the packaging should never lead to more food waste. On the contrary. So if packaging isn’t crucial, we shall not use it. And when packaging is absolutely indispensable for maintaining the freshness and quality of a product, we opt for the most sustainable way. Our ambition is to use fully recyclable or reusable packaging solutions by 2025.”

Investigating ways to level up the recycling game

To achieve its targets, Puratos partners up with universities, research centres and industrial partners to investigate ways towards more sustainable packaging solutions. As a partner of EIT Food, Puratos actively participates in innovation projects on a European level and international student challenges in the field of packaging science and technology. Two examples are EcoPack (2019) and EmptyAll (2021), challenging 24 Master and PhD students of 3 European universities to develop new and innovative packaging concepts with a clear link to sustainability and food waste reduction. 

The scope of both projects included:

  • Development of new packaging concepts in B2B and B2C focusing on food waste; functional design to empty packaging materials completely and reduce food spills 

  • Explore conceptually new biobased materials derived from waste streams (f.e. sugar cane bagasse and micella from mushrooms) for rigid packaging applications like trays and buckets 

  • Re-think plastic materials used for stretching and shrinking applications like bundling shrinks and pallet stretches

  • Support for these new ideas and concepts with high-level business plans, sourcing sites and potential supply chain directions

Multidisciplinary teams of four students developed solution-based prototypes and a business case on challenges put forward by industry partners. Experts from the packaging industry, retail and academia act as advisors to ensure the development of valid and realistic solutions. Both projects resulted in new packaging leads both for B2B and B2C and the creation of various start-ups is being considered as well.

Societal sustainability

With our deep focus on the environmental aspects of packaging, societal or ethical aspects can easily be forgotten. Of course, it is essential to consider in which circumstances materials have been produced. Are the working conditions at our suppliers in line with Puratos’s ethical demands? Are correct salaries being paid at supplier level? But it’s also about balancing between land use for food or for packaging. 

Van Caelenberg: “Players in food and non-food tend to use biobased plastics derived from sugar cane and claim it as a sustainable choice. This is partially true: on an environmental impact scale, it definitely reduces your footprint. However, on the ethical level of sustainability some considerations could be made about this choice. Sugar cane, which is the main source of biobased polyethylene materials, is grown in poor regions in South-America, mainly Brasil, where it could also have been used as a source of food for the local society. This is a potential conflicting situation, demonstrating that first generation biobased materials are not necessarily the most ‘sustainable’ solution in the broadest sense. At Puratos, we mainly focus on ways to use second and third generations of biobased materials, by valorising side streams of crops or by using algae technology to produce biopolymers.”

Packing of cookies at the factory

Economic sustainability

Last but not least, economical aspects play a major role as well when it comes to sustainable food packaging. As long as the sustainable choice is the most expensive one, it won’t become mainstream. “Packaging sustainability is high on the bucket list of many companies and consumers, but far from everyone is willing to pay a higher price for it today. To reach a justified price level on sustainable packaging solutions, equal to other materials, we need scaling. And for scaling, we need to create a stable support base in industry. Therefore, intercompany or sectoral agreements must be made in advance about the development and commercialisation of new packaging materials. Puratos drives sustainability initiatives in its sector organisations and maximally teams up with partners in different cross academic-industry consortia to create a ‘sustainable’ impact in his value chain.” 


In the vision of Puratos, sustainable food packaging is extremely important for the future of our planet. Besides food packaging, we are looking into many other areas to operate in a more sustainable way. Discover what we do to become carbon neutral in 2025, and what we do to have full control over our water use

About EIT Food

EcoPack and EmptyAll are projects supported by EIT Food*. EIT Food is Europe’s leading food innovation initiative, working to make the food system more sustainable, healthy and trusted.

The initiative is made up of an innovation community of key industry players across Europe, consisting of over 90 partner organisations and more than 50 start-ups from 16 EU member states. It is one of the Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KIC) established by the European Institute for Innovation & Technology (EIT), an independent EU body set up in 2008 to promote innovation and entrepreneurship across Europe.

EIT Food aims to collaborate closely with consumers to develop new knowledge and technology-based products and services that will ultimately deliver a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle for all European citizens.

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