Right kind of packaging reduces product's harm to environment

On average, one third of the food produced in the world goes to waste. Buying bigger package will not save the environment if part of its contents is not eaten.

Many consumers believe that it is better for the environment to buy bigger food packages: less packaging material has been used for one big package than for smaller packages of equal weight or volume.

The reality is much more complex. If, out of ten rye bread slices bought, one goes to waste, the harm caused to the environment is greater than the harm caused when making the package.

”The environmental impact of packaging materials is 3-10 percent of the impact of the food inside the package,” says Päivi Harju-Eloranta, Sustainability Director of Stora Enso’s Renewable Packaging Business Area.

It is more relevant from the environmental point of view to buy only as much food as you really will use, instead of focusing on the amount of packaging used. However, this principle is difficult to follow because of the retailers’ pricing policy. Shops want to sell volume, and the price per kilo is lower for a bigger package than for a smaller one.

“Shops do listen to consumers, but consumers do not always know the right things to ask for,” Harju-Eloranta says.

Practical package is also eco-efficient
Once food has been produced, it makes sense to use it efficiently. In this, packaging can play a big role. When the packaging is designed at the same time as its contents, many issues can be dealt with, says Ohto Nuottamo, Senior Packaging Adviser of Stora Enso’s Renewable Packaging Business Area.

Design can help minimize the amount of food left in the package: the inside surface of a yoghurt container must allow all of the contents to be eaten or poured out easily. Packages must be easy to open and shut.

The amount of packaging material used must be optimised, too. If too much is used, it is costly and heavy to transport. Too little packaging, and the product is inadequately protected and may be spoiled.

The longer a juice carton can be stored in room temperature without spoiling, the less goes to waste. Another environmental benefit is that a chill chain is not needed. The shelf life is determined by the length of time that vitamins and minerals can be preserved.

“Proof of recycling is most important”
The material used in packaging matters because it must be safe to recycle. In Finland, paperboard is recycled; so it is not regarded as waste, but as raw material.

The paperboard packages sorted by households into the proper receptacle do not need to be sorted further, but can be re-used directly, Harju-Eloranta says. Plastic waste is not collected for recycling. The main exception to this are PET bottles on which there is a deposit. They are recycled and made into fleece fabric, for example.

Most plastics end up in waste and in landfills. Plastics are more difficult to re-use as there are so many kinds, and often they are just burned for energy.

The collecting and sorting of plastic waste will increase in Finland thanks to the new Waste Act and the producer responsibility implemented from May onwards.

Interest in biomaterials is increasing
The recycling of packaging is a challenge, especially in the developing countries. Burning plastics is shunned in many cultures, and they end up as waste in landfills and waterways.

A packaging made out of wood fibre has the benefit that it does not introduce new carbon into the biospheric cycle even when it is eventually burned after recycling and re-use. When paperboard is burned, the carbon dioxide released is already a part of the great cycle.

This is not the case with plastics based on mineral oil. Making them taps into the ancient carbon storages in underground oil reservoirs. As a result, this carbon, which would otherwise remain stored, is released into circulation in the soil, water, vegetation and atmosphere.

“A product and its packaging make up one branded whole. The owners of many big brands look to increase the amount of biomaterials in their packagings,” Nuottamo says.

In future, packages will be made of composites. Renewable fibres give the packages a printing surface, strength and a pleasing feel, and the product itself is protected by various other materials, Nuottamo says. Recycling such packages is challenging but can be done.

The wood-refining industries need to extend their networks in order to be part of this development, Nuottamo thinks.

By Krista Kimmo
Taittoelementti, vihreä vaaka pisteviiva

Link to another page in FOREST.FI service Stora Enso mill also salvages aluminium from recycled paperboard
Link to another page in FOREST.FI service Paperboard cup is not a bulk product, after all
WWW-sivusto Halving Food Losses Would Feed an Additional Billion People, Finnish Study Finds (Science daily)
WWW-sivusto Lost food, wasted resources: Global food supply chain losses and their impacts on freshwater, cropland, and fertiliser use.

Practical package is also eco-efficient

“Proof of recycling is most important”

Interest in biomaterials is increasing

Päivi Harju-Eloranta. Photo: Stora Enso
 Harju-Eloranta says that Finns know how to package correctly. The most ecological package is the one which reduces food waste. On average, Finns also throw a lot less food to waste than other Europeans.

Ohto Nuottamo. Photo: Krista Kimmo
The environmental impact of the product inside is a good deal greater than that of the packaging. With good packaging design, we can reduce the environmental harm the product causes, says Ohto Nuottamo.

Stora Enso's Barcelona mill. Photo: Krista Kimmo
Packaging is universally considered to be waste and therefore bad. That’s why proven recycling is most important.

Vegetables for sale. Photo: Krista Kimmo
A study made at Aalto University found that with the current global use of water, agricultural land and fertilizers, we could feed eight billion people if the amount of food wasted currently could be halved.
Publisher: Finnish Forest Association, 02/15/2013

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