Food Engineering

Material suppliers seek sustainable advantage

November 1, 2006
Although sustainability is getting a big Wal-Mart push, manufacturers are finding ways to make it profitable.

Ecuadorian tuna packer Marbelize opted for a glass jar for its Yeli premium brand after research indicated the European target favored glass's image over cans. Source: O-I Inc.


Sustainability may be the feel-good corporate buzzword of the year, but the vagueness of the term becomes even more murky when applied to packaging.

Three years ago, Unilever, Pepsico and other corporations established the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), with the premise that environmentally sustainable packaging can be profitable. The concept is getting a bigger push from Wal-Mart, which is stepping up pressure on manufacturers to apply sustainability metrics in packaging decisions.

At September's second annual Sustainable Packaging Forum, sponsored by Packaging Strategies, Wal-Mart's Tyler Elm defined sustainability as "a business strategy that seeks to derive economic value with the pursuit of social and environmental outcomes." The senior director of corporate strategy and business sustainability promised attendees that a packaging scorecard for sustainability would be posted online by February to help suppliers rate their packaging. By 2008, those scores will be considered when Wal-Mart makes sourcing decisions, according to Elm. "Those who best step up will be rewarded."

Makers of paper, plastic, compost and other packaging structures are members of SPC, along with some of the companies in the vanguard of 20th Century overpackaging. "They're pretty well welcoming everyone on board," observes Kevin Stevens, vice president-global marketing of Toledo-based O-I Inc. "In all areas of sustainability, glass measures up well with other materials," claims Stevens, and he believes industry support for recycling will benefit glass containers and other sustainable packaging.

Package recycling is pegged at between 70%-90% in Europe; in the US, the range is 23%-25%, Stevens says. With public pressure to be more green-friendly mounting and with plastics manufacturers such as Dow Chemical and DuPont marking their sustainable turf, Stevens expects resistance to state and local bottle-return bills to crumble.

"Organic foods suppliers are contacting us about glass packaging, saying, ‘This helps attract consumers who are inclined to buy our products," says Stevens. Two firms selling to the European market-Marbelize tuna in Ecuador and Lowicz tomato sauce in Poland-converted from cans to glass jars, and Campbell Soup's Pace salsa recently rolled out a 30- oz. glass package.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters' name refers to a Vermont landmark, but the color also reflects the Waterbury, VT, firm's principles. Green Mountain recently completed a coffee cup development project with International Paper's food service division. Dubbed an "ecotainer" by IP Vice President Austin Lance, the cup is lined with a polylactic acid (PLA) polymer to prevent leaking. The material replaces a petroleum-based liner, says Paul Comey, Green Mountain's vice president of environmental affairs.

Produced from corn by NatureWorks LLC, PLA does not perform well with heat. IP developed a crystallization process to increase tolerance to 185

Less is more in terms of distribution for 8-oz. plastic bottles of Slammers flavored milk. The bottles meet school nutritional guidelines and can be dispensed through can vending machines owned by Coca-Cola. Source: Bravo! Foods International Corp.

A shape fit for a can vendor

As beverage companies scrambled to meet new standards for products sold in elementary schools, warehouses began filling up with machines designed to vend 12-oz. cans of soft drinks. Seeing an opportunity, officials at Bravo! Foods International Corp., North Palm Beach, FL, re-engineered their "snowman-shaped" container and filled it with flavored milks that meet new nutritional guidelines from the American Beverage Association (ABA).

"There are lots of dormant can vending machines because of the ABA's new school beverage guidelines," explains Joe Librizzi, Bravo's director of operations, procurement & supply management. "It was quite a challenge to qualify the new bottles for can-machine vending and to make sure they wouldn't be compromised at 36