Sealed Air has pledged that by 2025 it will use an average of 50% recycled content across all packaging solutions; 60% of which will be post-consumer recycled content.

Most conversations about sustainability in food production tend to eventually lead to packaging. Meat and poultry companies are looking for new ways to navigate the often-complicated dynamics of providing sustainable packaging options that are truly “green” but don’t break the bank.

Packaging companies are working with meatpackers to adapt current equipment so it can accommodate new packaging solutions while meeting different sustainability goals. Innovation in plant-based and post-consumer, fiber-based materials is being prioritized for many companies while increased reliance on recyclable plastics continues to be more efficient. Sustainable packages can be prohibitively more expensive than less environmentally friendly packaging like overwrapped foam trays.

Ossid, based in Battleboro, NC, has worked with its customers to provide ways to reduce the financial burden of pivoting into more sustainable packaging materials. When Ossid released its NextGeneration500E overwrapping stretch shrink wrapper in 2018, the company had sustainability in mind. The machine can accommodate many different styles of trays that can be changed over to a different size in under two minutes.

“We don’t want it to be a burden on our customer base; we’re 100% partnered with our customers,” said Mike Rogers, Overwrap product line manager at Ossid. “When they have a need we want to deliver it and don’t want to call them up and tell them you have to buy a new machine.”

Flexible options

The NextGeneration500E stretch shrink wrapper from Ossid can accommodate a variety of tray styles that can be switched out in a matter of minutes. (Photo: Ossid) 

Designing and manufacturing new equipment is more expensive than designing flexibility into the current equipment. Many of Ossid’s customers are requesting machines that can run more recyclable, clear plastics, and thus, the company has built that flexibility into its equipment. Ossid designed the NG500E sensors differently than the older models so the machines can recognize and run clear trays just as easily as opaque foam trays, Rogers said.

Sealed Air, headquartered in Charlotte, NC, has pledged to use an average of 50% recycled content across all packaging solutions; 60% of which will be post-consumer recycled content by 2025.

Currently the company’s Cryovac Brand Food Packaging division is working with a variety of sustainable packaging types; including recycle-ready plastics, renewable plant-based resins, recycled content and compostable materials that reduce the company’s carbon footprint.

“One of the challenges we are currently facing is that many of the complex, multi-layer materials used in food packaging cannot be recycled through traditional, mechanical recycling methods,” said Kristin Meyers, senior manager of global marketing food platform at Sealed Air.

Sealed Air has partnered with Plastic Energy, an advanced recycling company that uses technology to recycle plastics that would otherwise end up in a landfill or the environment. With this partnership, Sealed Air hopes to create a circular economy for plastics.

Sustainable packaging’s higher cost per unit can make it difficult at times to sell to bigger food companies and retailers.

The ECO Bowl is a flat, corrugated paperboard tray that includes a plastic liner. (Photo: Multivac) 

Often Gregg Poffenbarger, materials business director at Kansas City, Mo.-based Multivac, has customers tell him, “‘I love the idea. It’s a fantastic product, it forms well and performs great,’ they say. But it comes at a cost premium, and that cost premium is too high for many of our current customers to accept,” he said.

This hasn’t stopped Multivac from trying. It has been working with starch-based and plant-based, mixed polymers that are totally renewable – many that are compostable and some that are biodegradable, Poffenbarger said.

By experimenting with different sustainable options, Multivac offers options to its customers in this emerging market.

The company has seen a lot of interest in its ECO Bowl product line. The flat, corrugated paperboard trays come primarily from post-consumer feedstock and are designed with plastic liners that fit inside. The boxes remain clean for recycling programs, while also providing the benefits of saving storage space and transportation costs because all the manufacturing is done on-site.

Harpak-Ulma, with US operations in Taunton, Mass., is using its Platformer equipment to form paperboard trays that are manufactured in partnership with Graphic Packaging and G. Mondini. The product, Paperseal, reduces plastic usage by 85%, reported Carlo Bergonzi, product manager for Mondini tray sealing at Harpak-Ulma. “These trays are produced with renewable fiber sourced from sustainably managed forests.”

Paperseal trays are made to perfectly match the product, reducing waste and producing nearly 0% scrap to manufacture. The inner film liner can be separated from the paperboard when discarded, allowing for the paperboard portion to be recycled.

“The reduction in plastic and forming process equates to 59.5% less greenhouse gas, and 69.2% less energy used in production of Paperseal trays compared to traditional plastic barrier trays,” Bergonzi said.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

After the inner film layer of this Paperseal packaging is removed, the material is 100% recyclable. (Photo: Harpak-Ulma) 

Paperboard trays like Paperseal and the ECO Bowl can circumvent the current problems with US recycling infrastructure by using paperboard and fiber-based materials. Recyclable plastics are becoming more and more common in many food product applications, but municipal recycling infrastructures can make it difficult for consumers to know what is acceptable and what is still being put in landfills.

“Meat and poultry packaging are difficult because there is often food contamination of the packaging from the products,” said Nina Goodrich, executive director of GreenBlue and director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. “Sometimes a package might be recyclable if it was washed and dried, but is this a step that most consumers would take?”

One solution to this tedious practice could be for companies to reclaim their own trays and reprocess the packaging on-site.

Clearly Clean, an Orwigsburg, Pa.-based packaging company, is doing just that, making patented 100% recyclable, smooth-edge overwrap trays using PET. The company is planning to launch another business called Eco Standard, where it will reclaim a significant portion of its trays to recycle itself.

“Getting back a significant percentage of our trays will help close the loop and is a win for everyone: the consumer, processor, retailer, environment and Clearly Clean,” said Jeffrey Maguire, managing partner of Clearly Clean.

This will ultimately allow the company to get a clean stream of recyclable PET to use for new trays; creating a circular supply chain. This is encouraging for advocates like Goodrich and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, whose members represent the entire supply chain. Goodrich encourages meat companies to understand that sustainability initiatives need to be all-encompassing.

Clearly Clean is working to the close the loop on the package recycling process by reclaiming materials to recycle and reuse. (Photo: Clearly Clean) 

“End of life for the package is important but so is the beginning of life and the design of the package,” she said.

Companies like Clearly Clean, that analyze how recycling supply chains can improve, can make sustainable packaging proliferate further.

“What we’re trying to get to is not just be a company that tells people how to recycle, but we want to actually do it,” Maguire said. “We believe we can help how we do things in the country from a recycling standpoint.”