Benefits of Plant Based Packaging

This growing segment is being driven by new regulations centered on sustainability

With sustainability top of mind in the packaging industry, a world where petroleum-based plastics are out of the picture may not be so far off.

“Right now, in the U.S., there are 370 unique bills across 42 states in various levels of consideration banning petroleum-based plastics and single use products,” says Mark Marinozzi, vice president of marketing at Petaluma, CA-based World Centric, a producer of plant-based packaging. “There are issues around sustainability with Styrofoam and rigid plastics. In the next two to three years, these [materials] may go away.”

Whereas in the past, these environmentally-friendly initiatives were common in progressive states like California, today they are more widespread.

“The emphasis now from a regulation standpoint is around single-use bags, but increasingly includes green chemistry bans and mandates moving away from petroleum-based plastics,” says Marinozzi.

As a result, the global market for sustainable packaging overall is growing, as customers and businesses become aware of the detrimental effects of plastic on the environment and the lack of landfill space.

“This is being driven by consumer awareness and the government’s banning single-use plastics,” says Alex Garden, CEO and Chairman of Zume Inc., which is creating a connected technology across the food chain to enhance sustainability. The company has offices in California, Seattle, Connecticut, Boston and India. “This demand is being matched by technological advances in sustainable packaging being made much more frequently.”

Atlanta-based Be Green has been a plant-based packaging supplier for 12 years.

“The proliferation of plant-based diets and food has escalated the plant-based packaging market,” says Michael Newhouse, Be Green’s director of sales. “Opportunities are flying. When the major packaging companies are launching products, you know something is going on.”

The Options

What has helped drive the plant-based packaging movement, in addition to the continued focus on sustainability, is the expansion of the paper straw category over the last couple of years.

World Centric’s straws are produced from FSC-certified paper. This has been harvested in a responsible manner according to the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent, non-governmental, not-for-profit organization that was established to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests.

“These are the toughest paper straws on the market and the only type not using silates,” says Marinozzi. “Our ecologically-responsible, rapidly renewable paper is made from sugar cane waste and bamboo, two of the most durable products.”

World Centric’s molded products are produced from these materials as well as wheat straw waste to create molded fibers. PLA-based (polylactic acid) materials are used for the company’s transparent lids and produced from cassava, sugar beets, corn or methane, all rapidly renewable products or sustainably harvested.

“We’re also looking at new launches, such as another form of plant-based plastic,” says Marinozzi. “All are rapidly renewables or sustainably harvested and can be turned into soil within 180 days.”

Zume has built technology that unlocks the potential for this market by significantly speeding up the throughput per package, dropping the cost so that at scale its plant-based packaging is at or below the cost of plastic alternatives. 

“While there are different types of plant-based packaging, our packaging is made out of plant-based fibers that are classified as Type 4 Molded Fiber—which is the highest quality classification,” says Garden. “Our molded fiber is a mix of agricultural waste from sugarcane bagasse (i.e., the pulp after extraction), bamboo, wood pulp and wheat straw. We’re also looking at other agricultural waste products as great sources of fiber for our products.” 

Zume produces plant-based containers, trays and cups, among other customizable shapes suitable for delis.  

“On the performance side of the equation, we can do things that only plastic could before in terms of negative draft angles, smooth feel and strength,” says Garden at Zume.

As trends toward take-out and on-demand delivery continue, food companies are actively seeking better packaging solutions and providers to improve food quality, customer experience and cost.

“Delivery is challenging for many food companies, as food typically degrades en route,” says Garden. “The average delivery time is approximately 35 minutes, so our customers are looking for packaging that can help maintain an ideal food experience.”

In packaging, this is driving growth in the molded fiber solutions that are at the heart of Zume’s ongoing work and now its acquisition of compostable packaging provider Pivot Packaging.

 “One of the biggest changes in the category is the demand for single-use packaging as a result of on-demand food delivery,” says Garden. “As on-demand delivery continues to grow, expected to be about $90 billion by 2023, so too does the use of packaging. It’s critical that we get this right or today’s environmental problems associated with packaging will grow multi-fold.” 

Most packaging for on-demand delivery is made of either plastic, Styrofoam or corrugated paper. All three sources have environmental challenges that can and should be addressed.

Zume uses agricultural waste, which reduces water, energy and carbon emissions associated with the production of plastic, paper and Styrofoam products. With paper, molded fiber from agricultural waste also reduces deforestation.

“Our packaging is also compostable, so after use, it can be used to produce biomatter and soil to put back into the food system,” says Garden. “In contrast, only 9 percent of plastic is recycled, with the rest going to landfill, polluting our waterways or getting incinerated, where it pollutes the air and releases carbon emissions.” 

With Be Green’s lines, sugar cane extract is the standard formulation.

“We ventured into pine, but moved away from that to utilize a variety of plant sources, depending on the client and product availability,” says Newhouse.

Be Green’s offering is diverse for a variety of industries, including food. Its products are USDA and FSMA approved.

Kalamazoo, MI-based Fabri-Kal offers a line of plant-based packaging called Greenware that was launched in 2005.

“It is 100 percent U.S. made from plants,” says Emily Ewing, senior marketing manager. “We offer drink cups, food containers and small portion cups made out of PLA and clamshells made from wheat straw that’s left over after grain is harvested.”

Good Natured, based in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, produces a wide range of plant-based products.

“Our 99 percent plant-based consumer packaging products provide over 100 packaging applications,” says Andy Phillips, marketing manager. “We strive to produce packaging with no chemicals made from PLA and natural resources, such as corn.”

The Benefits

With the way the packaging industry is headed, it has become increasingly important for deli departments to get ahead of what will soon be a regulated industry.

“Otherwise, you will either not be prepared for the regulations and have to rush to get there or it will be a much more extensive product to be rushed to market, rather than a transition to compostable materials,” says Marinozzi. “Over time, customers will come on board.”

By adopting this sustainable packaging, supermarket delis are putting out the message that the customer and future of the planet are priorities.

“When customers see a container made of renewable fiber with a plant-based lid, there’s the message that the deli uses only compostable materials, and they’ll be sought out,” says Marinozzi. “An increasing number of consumers today are seeking these products.”

Becoming the Norm

Whereas the use of high-quality, sustainable packaging used to be perceived as an affluent issue involving those willing to pay a premium, this is changing.

“The importance of using compostables is trickling down into a broader selection of people in the U.S.,” says Marinozzi. “Convenience is still the biggest factor. We don’t want to start from scratch, but if they know it will end up as litter or can’t be recycled or composted or is unsafe with BPA in it, or if they’re cutting down a tree, odds are they’ll want to change and move into utilizing these products.”

Businesses also are becoming more concerned with single use products not creating more waste. That’s where molded fiber and plant-based packaging that has been sustainably sourced through post consumer waste or certified forests comes into play. The FSC certification verifies that not only are the materials being harvested responsibly, but that they are not imposing on indigenous areas, creating chemical runoffs or displacing natural habitats.

Zume Source Packaging is one of the first to offer compostable molded fiber with the performance characteristics of plastic, but at the same or a lower cost when manufactured at scale.

“Our ability to use technology to drive down costs and also create packaging that feels and performs like plastic is a breakthrough and the holy trinity in packaging—sustainable, cost-effective and high performance,” says Garden. 

Molded fiber made from agricultural waste or other environmentally-sourced resources has tremendous upstream environmental benefits in the form of water and energy use efficiencies as well as GHG emissions reductions from the manufacturing of petroleum-based inputs, deforestation and the methane emissions avoidance from rotting agricultural waste. 

Be Green’s packaging is 100 percent compostable if no lamination is used, and is certified recyclable for areas where there is no composting facility.

“Millennials are driving this market,” says Newhouse. “Today, just 10 percent of all trash gets recycled and the rest is going to landfills.”

Because the company’s plant-based packaging needs shelf life, it is working with companies to add fully-compostable plastics to its products. These perform better in low heat waste management facilities, unlike PLA.

Fabri-Kal’s products are 100 percent compostable in industrial facilities.

“What has become increasingly important in foodservice facilities is compostable packaging that can divert waste from landfills,” says Ewing. “Plant-based containers can be put in compost bins and are entirely composted, which is increasingly important to the environment and society.”

Phillips at Good Natured says the more people who become aware of issues and chemicals, the more who will seek out better alternatives.

“It’s a booming market and industry,” he says. “We cut across multiple categories for supermarket delis, with a whole section for prepared meals and department items like sandwiches, wraps and sushi.”

The Challenges

One of the biggest challenges in the plant-based packaging space is the lack of composting infrastructure.

“Our company started off as a nonprofit advocate for environmental issues, but one of the challenges we have is we’re hindered by the lack of compost infrastructure in the U.S. and globally,” says Marinozzi. “There has to be a strong desire on the part of communities and politicians as well as the waste management infrastructure [to accomplish this].”

Up until 15 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of compostable materials to turn into soil and be properly utilized. Shifting to a different model and infrastructure takes a commitment. As a result, the industry is experiencing grass roots efforts to get commercial composting off the ground.

“People need to see the benefits of turning waste to compost,” says Marinozzi. “Many states are getting the ball rolling, but unless consumers are paying attention or educated on it, they won’t know all of the benefits.”

Historically, the challenge also has been the cost and performance of plant-based packaging compared to plastic.   

“Our molded fiber products are ideal for packaging because it can be made with fully compostable materials and has similar performance qualities as paper and plastic, and can compete the same or better on cost when produced at scale,” says Zume’s Garden. “That said, there are potential challenges with biomass. One of those challenges is that we must have viable conversion technology to convert any particular biomass into pulp that is malleable and manufacturable through our process.”

Sourcing Requirements

Additionally, customers typically have their own unique requirements on where raw materials can be sourced.

“If they have viable agricultural waste from their own food production process, we’ll gladly seek to recycle that waste into the packaging,” says Garden.

Another issue is sourcing for plant-based packaging materials.

“Domestically, it’s hard to find sources for plant-based packaging due to farming, which is not always sustainable,” says Newhouse. “In addition, waste management is the challenge, since we have to peel off plastic lining to recycle.”

Material cost and availability is not a challenge for Good Natured.

“Our material performs better than petroleum equivalents, but awareness is still a factor,” says Phillips. “When we speak to consumers and customers, they’re often not aware of all the applications, so one of the biggest challenges for us is awareness of the space.”

Newhouse predicts the next generation of plant-based packaging will continue to grow in delis, as composting availability continues expanding.

“There will be new technological advances that will make it faster and more economical to shift to plant-based packaging,” says Garden. “These new advances are, in part, a result of the fact that people are becoming increasingly interested in true solutions to replace plastic. There will also be more technological improvements in the manufacturing process of packaging and molded fiber packaging that will not just positively affect the use and experience, but also the cost. In turn, this will enable even more companies to go green without going into the red.” DB