No surprise here: Sustainable packaging is all the rage now. The folks that make packaging, machinery and related equipment are eager to discuss advancements in this area, so let’s get started (responses have been edited for space) …

DFR: How has the sustainable packaging arena changed in the past year?

Brian Muehl, manager, materials technology, Alcan Packaging Food Americas Chicago: Two pillars of sustainable packaging - wise use of social and environmental resources - have not changed. There is, however, additional focus on the basic economic sustainability, strength and viability of packaging industry and raw materials suppliers. In our industry, economic sustainability requires that customers - including end-use consumers - feel confident about the stability and safety of their packaging products.

Dale Berg, general manager, Blackhawk Molding Co. Inc., Addison, Ill.: Clearly the sustainable packaging issue has become more important and visible during the last year.  Promotion and buy-in by the big-box stores and their dairy and water suppliers have made a packaging response a high priority moving forward.

Ron Giordano, H.S. Crocker Co., Huntley, Ill.: There is a greater demand and it is apparent that people are becoming more aware of the need for products that do not harm the environment and will not create problems for the future.

Peter Fox, director of sales, Delkor Systems Inc., Circle Pines, Minn.: Cost management has solidified its position as the leading motivating factor for a company’s decision to embrace sustainable packaging initiatives. This can be attributed in part to the influence of a recessionary economy in which dollars saved via sustainable packaging solutions contribute to the long-term viability of many businesses.

Derric Brown, director of sustainability, Evergreen Packaging, Memphis, Tenn.: Over the past few years we’ve seen a huge increase in the importance of “green” issues among the general public. More and more consumers consider issues such as sustainability when making purchasing decisions.

Ben Fogg, sales manager, Fogg Filler, Holland, Mich.: Bottles and caps have cut gram weight to reduce the total material used. It seems as though the driving factor for that change is economic rather than environmental.

Jay Martin, chief operating officer, IPEC, New Castle, Pa.: We have seen a renewed focus on process optimization. Efficiency gains are one of the most effective ways to reduce a facility’s environmental impact. Replacing older equipment with the latest technology certainly helps achieve these gains, but with many companies limiting capex spending, this must be accomplished through optimization of existing equipment.

Steve Davies, director of communications and public affairs, NatureWorks LLC, Minnetonka, Minn.: One of the major drivers for sustainable packaging is the pressure that consumers are applying to brand owners and retailers to introduce more responsible products. What has changed over the past year is that now, more than ever in these tough economic times, it’s important for brand owners and retailers to build consumer loyalty. This requires differentiation.

Laura Olsen, marketing coordinator, Portola Packaging, Batavia, Ill.: Sustainability, like quality, can be the most meaningful form of cost savings that can be pursued. The principle of continuous improvement is a fundamental keystone to quality and will be too for sustainability. Once companies get turned on to the savings, sustainability will gain even more momentum.

Barbara Drillings, marketing manager, Printpack Inc., Farmingdale, N.Y.: The past year has brought about several advances in sustainable packaging including the introduction of new, more sustainable shrink films: a high-yield version of PETG and a recycled PLA shrink film.

Ron Cotterman, executive director, sustainability, Sealed Air Corp., Duncan, S.C.: The change in economic climate has caused a shift in the focus of the sustainable packaging discussions from environmental attributes to those factors that can help customers more effectively manage their costs. Sustainability must be viewed as a journey, where progress is made through a series of deliberate steps towards longer term goals.

Beatriz Callanta, marketing manager, SIG Combibloc, Chester, Pa.: It has become one of the major themes of the world today. It has also become the key factor in evaluation and decision-making for retailers and consumers alike.

Ed Klein, vice president, environmental affairs, Tetra Pak Inc., Vernon Hills, Ill.: According to a recent report from SBI, the nearly $35 billion U.S. market for food and beverage packaging has ample opportunities for growth in sustainable packaging options. While a weakened economy in 2008 has negatively impacted the price of recycled materials, large retailers like Wal-Mart continue to drive the use of more sustainable packaging options through their own initiatives and standards, which help improve performance while reducing costs.

Richard Smith, commercial director, Uniloy Milacron North America, Tecumseh, Mich.: Increasing emphasis on container weight reduction and total systems packaging reduction.

DFR: What are processors demanding in regards to sustainable packaging and related equipment?

Muehl: Processors are requesting products that further improve their efficiencies and reduce production costs, whether it is support of current equipment or new products that improve operating costs. 

Berg: Processors are reacting to the target goals set by the retailers for meeting sustainability objectives. Wal-Mart has been at the forefront in setting these objectives.  Fluid milk suppliers are looking at stackable bottles to lower handling costs and eliminate dairy cases from the mix. 

Giordano: Processors want to move into the availability of metal detection along with the added awareness of what this type of packaging can do for the customer and the environment.

Fox: In a word, accountability. The era of hyper-inflated claims and unmeetable promises has come to an end. Processors are demanding quantifiable measurements of the sustainable benefits that can be derived from alternative types of sustainable packaging.

Brown: Processors are more focused on recycling and reducing the amount of materials used in both primary and secondary packaging. We have been receiving questions such as, “Can you lightweight your cartons and closures?” or “Can we use kraft paper wrap to replace the corrugated case?”

Martin: We have seen processors looking for total product solutions more than in the past. With line efficiencies and scrap reduction playing such a major role in overall sustainability, processors aren’t simply asking us to supply a lighter-weight closure and have them struggle through the marriage of the cap, the bottle and the equipment. 

Davies: The total cost structure for the package in the channel has to be competitive and they want their employees, customers and suppliers to recognize they are serious about improving society and the environment. Performance and attractiveness are important and must fit the need of the package.

Scott Bossong, marketing director, dairy packaging, Sealed Air Corp.: Processors are demanding performance and value from their packaging solutions. To the extent that these solutions also have environmental or social benefits, they have strong customer appeal. Allowing our customers to increase their throughput of their packaging lines provides a tangible economic benefit with associated benefits of both energy and labor efficiencies.

Cotterman: Customers have come to understand that minimizing food waste and spoilage means that packaging efficiencies are maximized. This means that more food will be consumed per package (100% consumption goal). The ability to properly store and unload food will also provide a packaging source reduction.

Callanta: Processors demand continuous corporate efforts in order to reduce impact on the environment. Processors also demand equipment designed for optimal efficiency to reduce product and packaging waste. Especially regarding value-added and functional product concepts, dairy processors are looking for a package that fits the product in terms of attractiveness and offers an excellent shelf presentation.

Fred Beer, president, Westfalia Deam Systems, York, Pa.:  Lower maintenance, more flexibility to handle different package sizes, easier to clean – all demands that have been in existence for a number of years now.

DFR: How are you meeting these needs? What types of products have you developed?

Muehl: Risk mitigation is a key element in meeting the needs of our customers and the needs of end-use consumers. Alcan Packaging has worked proactively to reduce supply risks, from environmental, weather-related challenges to technical and economic issues … even better alignment with supply chain, R&D, manufacturing, marketing and sales, customers’ raw material choices, strategic suppliers and risk-prevention protocols. Alcan has been working to manufacture new products that reduce material while improving performance. Over the past year, there has been an invigorated focus on significant material reduction in our packaging.

Berg: Blackhawk has incorporated a mineral additive that substitutes for part of the carbon-based resin that is the raw material for a new line of our caps. This lowers cost, increases productivity, lowers energy usage and generally improves the product. Other sustainable products include fresh-strip packaging and stackable bottle solutions.

Giordano: We are testing new products on a regular basis and have an ongoing R&D budget to keep this program moving forward.

Fox: The Delkor Spot-Pak Flat Pad Packaging System has a proven record of providing significant sustainability advantages for dairy packaging applications. A recent study determined that Spot-Pak shippers reduce material consumption by at least 80% when compared to traditional corrugated RSC boxes while reducing energy consumption by more than 60% and greenhouse gas emissions by 55%.

Brown: We are looking at a variety of new and innovative approaches, from bio-resins used in our extruded barrier structures to process changes in our paper making system that improve the recyclability of our products. We are continually evaluating ways to improve machine output while minimizing energy usage.

Fogg: Rinsers are now designed to use less water with the same effectiveness. We have also changed rinsers to rinse with air instead of water. Fogg offers a chemical-free option for sanitizing caps – proven UV light technology to kill microorganisms on the caps before they are applied to the bottle.

Martin: We continue to expand our base of knowledge by hiring experts from the field of blow molding HDPE and PET and experts from the field of filling, capping and conveyance equipment. We also continue to focus on resin reductions through improved product design and utilization of material additives. We have also made a large investment to increase our capacity on our highly successful ISS and ISO product lines.  Both are drop-lock design closures that are more forgiving designs, which allow processors to benefit by running increased line speeds.

Davies: In the dairy industry, Ingeo – which is derived from 100% annually renewable plant sugar – is used for films, shrink-sleeve labels, coating for ice cream cartons, bottles and jugs. Other innovations include barrier films for cheese, and tubs and lidding films for cottage cheese and yogurts.

Olsen: We work with our suppliers to seek out renewable materials and partner on ways to reduce resin usage, as well as to optimize incoming shipping and reduce packaging. Shipping in gaylords eliminates about one in three truckloads; fewer truckloads means less fuel expended and fewer carbon emissions.

Drillings: Printpack meets the needs of processors by offering them a wide choice of films, including plant-based films like PLA and R*PLA, which are sustainable, compostable and recyclable. Having our own technical staff helps processors choose the film that best meets their needs. 

Bossong: Cryovac is continuing to deliver innovation to meet customer demands. Multi-Seal laminate packages not only reduce the total package weight compared to rigid alternatives, but also give consumers the ability to reclose food packages. Improved B2000 barrier bag with improved abuse characteristics allow customers to use the standard-gauge bag for many tough applications. Liquid pouch packaging for high-barrier, retort or aseptic applications provides a significant reduction of packaging weights compared to rigid alternatives while also increasing the ease with which products are used and delivered.

Callanta: This year, the U.S. market will see the first launch of our CombiFit Premium package in 500- and 1,000-milliliter sizes. CombiFit Premium features a slim and elegant style with an attractive slanted top. SIG Combibloc has launched the new CombiSmart opening feature, the smallest screw cap available for small-size product applications.

Klein: On average, 74% percent of each Tetra Pak carton is made of paper from responsibly sourced, well-managed forests. This means that the wood used for our paper is replaced and will be available to future generations. The product-to-packaging ratio for Tetra Pak cartons is as high as 96:4, meaning only 4% is packaging while the remaining weight is the product inside. Tetra Pak paper cartons require less energy to transport than other packaging options. Products packaged in Tetra Pak cartons can be stored up to 12 months without refrigeration, saving additional energy. 

Smith: We are developing new tooling designs for better distribution of material to maintain structural integrity of the package while reducing the total amount of plastic required for like-kind package performance. Uniloy Milacron now offers “Clean Blow,” which allows manufacturers to blow-mold containers with sterile air, and “Three Layers,” which allows processors to manufacture aseptic three-layer containers on a traditional Uniloy reciprocating-screw, intermittent-extrusion machine.

DFR: Is the primary motivation behind sustainable packaging cost savings or environmental friendliness?

Muehl: Both. Whether a solution uses less packaging material, employs materials with better environmental footprint, increases shelf-life or reduces in food waste, every scenario must be cost-effective.

Berg: Without cost savings, the environmental friendliness issue will come and go. To be sustainable, cost must be a primary driving factor. Environmental friendliness is the positive byproduct.

Brown: Both. Often projects that have a significant environmental return also have a financial return. We see sustainability and cost savings as being complementary in more cases than one might expect.

Davies: Sustainable packaging drives to triple bottom line - improvements to the economics of the business and benefits to society and the environment. Improving the sustainability of the package means reducing the economic and environmental footprint from source extraction through to recovery and reuse.

Klein: Primary motivations stem from both good environmental performance and business value. Providing a package that meets both criteria inevitably leads to more retail shelf space. The advent of retail programs like Wal-Mart’s Sustainable Packaging Scorecard is motivating many to switch to compete for prime space.

DFR: What is the current state of sustainable packaging and where does it need to go next?

Muehl: Stay on course. For Alcan Packaging, it is to keep in balance the economic, social and environmental pillars of sustainability. By doing so, we can do the right thing for our customers, end-users, employees and shareholders.

Giordano: Sustainable packaging is in its beginning stages and needs to go beyond its present limits. More orientation toward renewable source material is needed to break more barriers.

Brown: What’s new, at least in the United States, is the increased value that consumers are placing on the sustainable characteristics of a product. This trend is reshaping the way we look at packaging and will speed up development in the areas of material science and package design.

Davies: Compared to two years ago, packaging professionals are much further ahead in terms of learning curve. There are more renewably based materials available and retailer and consumer support is growing. Once oil prices climb, you will see an accelerated shift to alternative materials based on renewable resources.

Drillings: Retailers are driving the initiative for sustainable packaging and brand owners need to comply with these requests.

Callanta: Judging from a total cost perspective over the entire value chain, the aseptic carton offers the lowest cost solution. By integrating the aspects of convenience, packaging attractiveness, environmental friendliness and lower costs, the aseptic carton will clearly present solutions to sustainability.

Klein: There is still plenty of low-hanging fruit when it comes to packaging decisions. You have to consider the savings and environmental impacts in the whole process of delivering food. Continued collaboration among retailers, packaging manufacturers and producers will be key.

Smith: There still is too much confusion between reality and perception. For instance, plastic packaging, when done right and viewed in terms of the entire life-cycle of the package, is probably one of the “greenest” alternatives available. The move has to be viewed in the context of the entire distribution and reclamation cycle, not simply the package itself.  More systems coordination needs to take place.


Alcan Packaging Food Americas

Blackhawk Molding Co. Inc.

H.S. Crocker Co.

Delkor Systems Inc.

Evergreen Packaging

Fogg Co.


NatureWorks LLC

Portola Packaging

Printpack Inc.

Sealed Air Corp.

SIG Combibloc

Tetra Pak Inc.

Uniloy Milacron North America

Westfalia Technologies Inc.