With their ability to tell a story while standing on a supermarket shelf, retail packaging easily flags a change in recyclable content or biodegradability.

Replacement of bleached paperboard with a fluted-paper clamshell using 20 percent less material won a notable achievement citation from judges in this year’s DuPont Awards for innovation in sustainable packaging. Source: DuPont Packaging & Industrial Polymers.

Not so with foodservice containers, which often go unseen by the people who consume the food these containers protect. That has retarded sustainable packaging initiatives, but with a push from some major players, foodservice suppliers are beginning to reassess their material choices.

That’s good news for sustainable-packaging companies catering to the foodservice channel. Scores of them exhibited at this year’s National Restaurant Show in Chicago, where major suppliers such as International Paper and Solo Cup also trumpeted their earth-friendly options. “Lots of people are looking for alternatives to conventional materials,” maintains Wendell Simonson, marketing director for Boulder, CO-based Eco-Products, though few retailers are actually buying alternative packaging at this point. But he believes more will follow.

“I’m pretty impressed with the commitment by Starbucks to convert totally to recyclable materials by 2012,” says Simonson. “They’re not giving it lip service; they get it.”

Eco-Products started as a distributor of foodservice disposables made from recycled paper. Four years ago, the firm began contracting with Asian manufacturers to make thermoformed cups, cutlery and other goods from polylactic acid (PLA) resins. More recently, plates and bowls made from the fiber of sugar cane stalks were added. Eco-Products clients include Burgerville USA, a 40-unit chain in the Pacific Northwest that has made sustainability and social responsibility a central part of its marketing message.

While Burgerville won’t influence foodservice suppliers’ materials choices, Starbucks will. McDonald’s Corp. is beginning to exert pressure for change from its suppliers, though it has a low-key public posture, quietly eliminating styrofoam clamshells and other environmentally objectional materials. The company’s French outlets recently won a DuPont Packaging Award for a lightweight sandwich clamshell made of three-layer, fluted paperboard and without barrier-coated SBS, but the entry came from its packaging partner, Havi Global Solutions.

Downers Grove, IL-based Havi is minutes away from McDonald’s headquarters and was essentially a captive supplier. Now it’s taking on a liaison role, offering packaging solutions to McDonald’s suppliers. Most food is delivered to McDonald’s DCs, but the materials suppliers’ use ripple down to the store level, giving McDonald’s a vested interest in guiding their container choices, explains Shane Bertsch, Havi’s director of product development. Havi intends to guide suppliers’ container choices based on environmental impact, as well as functionality, material availability, operational fit in the stores and cost.  v

For more information:
Wendell Simonson, Eco-Products, 303-962-4230, wendell@ecoproducts.com
Shane Bertsch, Havi Global Solutions, 630-493-7304, sbertsch@havigs.com