Sustainable Packaging Innovations

How packaging exports are helping natural products go green.

According to Pike Research, sustainable packaging will comprise nearly a third of the packaging market by 2014, which equates to about a $170-billion industry (1). This growth is significant, considering that sustainable packaging had just a 21% market share in 2009. The fastest growing area with regard to materials will be plastics, the substances that supplement makers rely on to house their products. Plastics, along with paper, which is also thoroughly embraced in the natural products industry, will have the largest market share in the packaging arena.

Given this, WholeFoods checked in with a few sustainable packaging experts to talk about what’s coming down the pike that could affect the natural products industry.

Paper Route
Historically, sustainable packagers have embraced paper and corrogated cardboard for their rigidity, recyclability, renewability and biodegradability. But, paper has some limitations, too, particularly with respect to housing liquids. In this case, coatings have been used, which has made some items difficult or impossible to recycle.

Here’s where innovation is coming into play. One company, Ecologic Brands, has developed a new bio-layered container for liquids (like milk or laundry detergent). The outer core is made from corrugated cardboard that is shaped to form the bottles. This section can be re-recycled or composted. The inner liner is made of BPA-free, non-GMO #4 plastic (polyethylene), which has 70% less plastic than rigid plastic alternatives, says Cris Genovese, chief marketing officer, Ecologic Brands, Oakland, CA. This inner piece can be separated from the outer shell (along with the cap) and recycled with #4 plastic. “So, consumers get all the functionality they are used to, plus the eco benefits,” Genovese states. “By keeping the plastic and paper in their natural states versus laminating them together, we are promoting recyclability.”

Plastics can also be used in place of heavy, expensive glass for dietary supplements. Earth Renewable Technologies (ERT), Charleston, SC, has been working on rigid plastic containers that have a similar strength, moisture barrier and heat resistance to petroleum-based polymers. But, the 100% natural packaging has a huge advantage: “At the end of the product’s life cycle, it can be composted (with the plastic ‘disappearing’ within 120 days) or it can be used as a feed source for anaerobic waste-to-energy plants to return energy to the electrical grid,” says Craig Cameron, the company’s chairman and CEO. “ERT polymers provide the safety of glass with the weight and convenience of traditional plastics,” he adds.

The company is using a similar technology for new flexible packaging materials that can be used to make plastic and garbage bags, for example. According to Cameron, the bags can be disposed of safely at sea and are very strong.

On another front, aseptic carton packaging from Tetra Pak, Vernon Hills, IL, is helping improve products in another way: eliminating the need for refrigeration of some products while preserving taste and nutritional content. “In the aseptic process, products are flash heated and cooled, avoiding extensive heat degradation of ingredients and nutrients,” says Ed Klein, the firm’s vice president of environmental affairs. “Both food and packaging materials are free of harmful bacteria at the moment the food is packaged, driving the extended shelf life of the products. The Tetra Pak carton’s six layers are responsible for keeping impurities, light and oxygen out.” This means that milk and dairy products notorious for requiring refrigeration can be shelf stable when processed with ultra-high temperatures and packaged in Tetra Pak cartons.

The source of the trees is important to the company, too. Says Klein, “We are committed to using raw materials that come only from responsibly managed forests, where new trees replace harvested ones, transform CO2 to oxygen, provide habitats for wildlife and make raw materials for all sorts of essential products.”

Companies are also developing natural packaging for growing categories like baby products, kids’ foods and single-serve items “where the specific attributes of natural packaging enable it to be cost competitive with traditional polymers…where the packaging complements the products (such as natural cleaners) and where eco-friendly polymers are the only option to use a plastic,” says Cameron.

The Disappearing Act
While companies are working to make packaging vanish into thin air, they are also continuously working to improve their other practices. One such area is making sure their processes are as green as possible. “Manufacturers need to be aware of the carbon footprint of their packaging through the entire lifecycle of their packaging, from initial sourcing to beyond the end-user,” says Klein.

For this reason, ERT uses a process to make its polymers with a “smaller carbon footprint than traditional plastics,” says Cameron. And, Tetra Pak is continually working to reduce its carbon emissions; in 2009, the company lowered emissions by 12% over its 2005 levels (while increasing packaging production by 32%). Plus, in Brazil, the company is piloting the use of high-density polyethylene from renewable feedstock, “which represents a pioneering move toward using green polyethylene in the carton packaging industry,” says Klein.

But in order for sustainability to truly become the standard, retailers must support it. “Key industry players (including Whole Foods Market) need to even more aggressively champion the need for eco-friendly packaging and make it clear to their suppliers that this is what customers are increasingly demanding,” says Cameron. He adds that this would help drive innovation in alternative materials (such as using sugar cane waste as a base material in natural polymers instead of corn) and help reduce the price of raw materials because of greater demand.

This point is paramount. Everyone must do their part, for it is only through the collaborative efforts of retailers, packaging specialists and raw materials suppliers that sustainable packaging can flourish. WF

1. “Sustainable Packaging To Grab 32% Of Market By 2014,” May 19, 2009,, accessed March 1, 2010.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, April 2010.