Sooner or later, it happens to them all: traditional packaging materials like composite plastics must give way to more sustainable alternatives. Food packaging is no exception: around the globe, legislation and environmentally conscious brand owners are gradually changing the way some of the most common staples are packaged. While this change offers new environmental and marketing opportunities, it also calls for highly flexible packaging equipment – a trend that leading systems manufacturers are now responding to.
Composite plastics can be daunting for brands: while they provide great flexibility in terms of design and usage, they prove difficult to recycle – and hence poses a challenge to a wide variety of industries, including the food sector. As sustainable business practices are establishing themselves as the new normal, consumers and companies across the globe are questioning conventional packaging choices with regard to plastic content and recyclability.
While traditional plastics are losing their appeal due to poor recyclability, companies are on the lookout for alternatives that can be easily recycled, put less strain on the environment and contribute to the concept of a circular economy. Legislative pressure adds to this shift: The EU, for instance, has been imposing a tax on non-recycled plastic since 2021. In other countries, like the U. S., state-wide bans on other non-recyclable materials are contributing their fair share to the overall reorientation.
Paper and mono-materials on the rise
In addition to legal requirements, changing consumer expectations are an important driver of change. A survey among US consumers found that around two thirds of them consider paperboard, paper and glass to be very sustainable, displaying a keen interest in recyclable plastics and fiber-based alternatives.
Two sustainable materials are particularly popular amongst manufacturers: paper and mono-material films. With the appropriate technology, these materials can be processed on existing equipment without compromising speed and efficiency. Moreover, they score points with high shelf appeal, guarantee product protection, and are recyclable at the same time, which puts them ahead of conventional multi-layer plastic films. But how to change packaging solutions that have been a mainstay of food and beverage packaging for decades? Molded plastic trays, plastic bags and shrink-wrap films are still widely used.
Produce packaging: withstanding moisture and product weight
Take fresh produce, for instance. Produce brands commonly rely on plastic clamshells, polystyrene trays, and plastic bags for berries, grapes, tomatoes, and the like, which are loaded, then closed or flow wrapped. Their packaging needs to be moisture-proof, since produce often comes ripe and freshly harvested from fields or orchards and is kept fresh with a mist-dispenser on shelf.
While paper may not seem a suitable choice of material at first glance, many applications in the field prove that paperboard is gaining ground in the fresh produce section too. Replacing traditional packaging styles with paperboard topload cartons or sleeves, however, requires some specific adaptations, especially in the case of moist produce. Paperboard therefore needs to feature a barrier coating to withstand moisture. This is the case with latest developments in paperboard packaging. Moreover, mid-sized to large products like apples, onions and potatoes are usually sold as bulk ware, either loose or in flexible bags that can hold several pounds each. When switching to paperboard cartons or sleeves, produce companies need to make sure these alternatives are just as stable as traditional pack styles. Depending on the load, glue-style or lock-style cartons provide the required stability for safely handling high-quality produce.
“Running new packaging styles and adapting to current trends requires the right amount of equipment flexibility,” says Robert Kiely, Managing Director at Kliklok in Bristol, UK. As a pioneer in carton forming and loading, Syntegon has been refining its equipment for 75 years. Syntegon offers a large portfolio of matching solutions under its Kliklok brand, supporting food manufacturers globally to live up to their sustainability claims.
Cartons for Australian onions
They did so lately with their Kliklok topload former and closer. Both enabled an Australian onion producer to switch to eco-friendly paperboard. The producer opted for glued recycled paperboard topload cartons with cutout parts at the top. The perforated parts are not only a design element, but they also serve as handles, allowing end consumers to safely carry the bulk onions.
The Kliklok ACE Topload Former was the best fit to realize this style, as it can form lock-style and glue-style cartons on the same machine, offering the manufacturer full flexibility for future projects. To bolster customers’ sustainability endeavors, Syntegon developed the ACE to run paperboard or corrugated material. The Kliklok Vari-Right, in turn, supported the customer in closing the cartons. Keeping the cartons’ shape as they traveled through the machine proved challenging, as the recycled paperboard was thinner and less rigid than most other cartons. The topload closer’s lug system, however, helped to safely guide the cartons through the various closing stations, while rollers ensure tight glue seals.
Jelly packaging: Easy sleeving
While produce suppliers have recently been switching to more sustainable packaging, other industries began exploring these options early on – and are now using them extensively. The snacks, beverage and household products industries manufacture goods with a strong shelf presence, offering brands an opportunity to fully attract consumers’ attention with appealing package designs and branding.
Leveraging this potential involves a change in the packaging material, and the packaging systems themselves. “Regardless of the industry, our machines can run different materials to handle a variety of pack styles – including topload cartons and paperboard wraparound sleeves,” Robert Kiely points out. These pack styles had caught the attention of a major jelly manufacturer: “They supply supermarkets across the UK. For sustainability reasons, they wanted to change their plastic shrink wrap material for three different sizes of pots from single-use plastic to cardboard sleeves,” he explains.
Meeting that requirement took a Kliklok Certiwrap C150 for the sleeving of meal trays, tubs and pots, either individually or in a variety of multi-pack configurations. The machine forms a sleeve with a special v-shaped retention feature inside. It helps to correctly space and retain the pot, the lid of which goes through the sleeve’s upper side for added stability. The sleeve is then glue-sealed. Instead of applying two glue stripes on both ends of a typical sideload carton, sleeves require only one, helping not only to replace plastic with this pack style, but also to reduce glue costs by around 50%.
Cookie packaging: Rethinking trays
Another industry that is keen to replace traditional plastic is the cookies and cracker sector, which has been using plastic trays for decades. Trays are loaded with cookies, then flow wrapped, and sometimes loaded into cartons, especially if the flow wrap only ensures atmospheric barrier protection and does not serve any marketing purposes. In terms of sustainability, however, plastic trays made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, have come under scrutiny, as they are difficult to recycle, albeit not for technical reasons. While the suitable technology and facilities exist for this purpose, there is still no acceptable and cost-effective system that allows to collect, sort, recycle and reintroduce PET trays into the value stream, making them largely un-recyclable from a practical perspective.
Many cookie manufacturers are considering paperboard trays and recyclable flow wrap film instead. According to a survey conducted by Syntegon together with the industry organization Biscuit People, cookie, biscuit and baked goods producers show a keen interest in paper trays flow-wrapped either with paper or mono-material films. More than half of the respondents prefer an integrated solution to achieve their sustainable packaging goals.
Syntegon has been supplying the industry with suitable technology for years. The ACE Topload Former supports the packaging of trayed and flow wrapped cookies, biscuits or other trayable products. Besides its ability to erect a wide variety of lock-style and glue-style cartons on the same machine, the ACE now supports lock-style forming of paper trays with product compartments.
This enables manufacturers to replace conventional plastic trays for cookies or bars with eco-friendly paperboard trays. Backed by a Syntegon flow wrapper which can process conventional materials as well as mono-materials or paper, the ACE thus can contribute to an effective, integrated equipment system for sustainable packaging operations. One thing is for sure: companies, just like their consumers, are eager to fully explore sustainable packaging, which is still only at the beginning of a long and fruitful journey.