As supermarket shelves become fuller with a larger offering of foods and beverages, the importance of the right packaging increases as well. They must stand out from the competition while conveying a number of messages: the content, the product’s image, its principles. In the sector of organic foods, their sustainability ethics also play an important role in consumer’s perception. But how much of it translates into reality?

“You can’t talk about sustainable packaging,” says Professor Roland ten Klooster, who is the chair of Packaging Design and Management at the University of Twente, in The Netherlands. At the recent Sustainable Food Summit in Amsterdam, he raised a few eyebrows with his criticism towards the way Marketing has pushed the sustainability lingo into packaging without looking at the veracity behind the argument.

He says packaging is just a part of a far more complex chain: “Comparing materials is what packaging producers often want, but then you are only comparing a part of the chain. Consumer behavior, loss in the chain, possibility to empty the packaging, recycling possibility in a certain market, all play a role and are often not taken up in claims.”

Ten Klooster says the design process of packaging must be managed in a different way, through which “the consequences of choices must be clear.” The simple choice of a color, for example, will involve a specific supplier, which in its turn must work with other suppliers. The University of Twente has been looking into actor networks to be able to map the consequences of each choice a company makes while choosing its packaging. The deeper they go in the actor networks, the more insights they will get. This means they can use this information to balance their choices when designing more sustainable packaging.

Circle of Life

There are good practices though. Looking at the end product, there are successful programs in several European countries, which see a good turn-around of bottles or cans being recycled. On top of that, there are innovative efforts coming to light. In particular there is a surge in using biomaterials as an alternative to paper and plastics.

US based Ecovative Design has made some headlines with their proposition of agricultural waste and mushroom mycelium (a natural glue). Their compostable mushroom solution is now replacing plastic foam in the packaging of several goods including electronics, sport shoes and medicine.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, in Poland, Jerzy Wysocki got inspired by his family’s hundred-year-old milling tradition, and invented tableware out of bran. He says he was looking for a “solution that would allow to use by-product from mills, finding another application for bran, other than fodder or compostable waste, giving it another round in the production lifecycle.”

Sustainable chain?

His company Biotrem promotes a zero waste policy. Apart from being compostable, the products are also edible. While not a substitute for bread, children in particular are said to enjoy having a bite. And they can be used for animal feed. If the consumer has no animals or has been able to resist the grain scent of the plate, they can opt to compost them. Wysocki guarantees “contrary to most other products labelled as biodegradable or compostable that require the use of commercial composting facilities, our plates can be quickly composted in a backyard composter.”

The bran used in Biotrem’s products is sourced locally and Wysocki’s family ties with the milling sector has provided him with a large network that he can now use for his benefit: “We know our neighbours well, and their production lines, so we are sure of the quality and origin of the material we buy. It’s organic, fresh and clean.” In addition, Biotrem ensures the bran they buy is produced for human consumption. And with Poland producing 170 million cubic tons of wheat bran a year, his company is just a drop in the ocean as they expect to use under 150 thousand tons in the next two years.

While Biotrem is currently focussing on tableware, it is also looking into packaging solutions with plans to introduce up to eight new formats this year and some other 10 in 2016.

Challenges, however, remain and Biotrem’s bran based material is still not a solution for every product. When Wysocki tells about Biotrem’s tableware, he focuses on its bread aroma that makes you want to eat your own plate, or on the fact that when used in a microwave it won’t overheat so it’s safe to handle. But even though they produce bowls, using them for hot liquids may result in culinary drama as the bran plates will dissolve within 30 minutes upon contact with hot water. Wysocki brushes it off saying “it’s plenty of time to finish your dish before it actually happens.”

The Future

For Ten Klooster both solutions look promising and most initiatives to produce disposables from left overs seem sustainable. But without a clear analysis of the whole chain, “the question is if this will lead to a clear difference.

For the time being, Ten Klooster is focusing in studying the actor networks his university is developing. The study is mainly being carried by students, but ideally Ten Klooster would like to work with companies. However he has found some are reluctant to provide information that may impact their public record of sustainability. Tests he has conducted on some of these materials have revealed different figures from those shown in their component lists. Transparency is therefore key in the process.

A more serious approach to packaging must also take place in the corporate corridors: “There is hardly a company with packaging skills in the management team. The packaging takes about 10% for its account concerning costs, but it can ruin the complete product, processing and sustainability and then it costs the tenfold.”