Canadian Packaging

Packaging – Achieving Balance between Circularity and Shelf Life

By Graphic Packaging International   

Environmental sustainability is a defining challenge of our time.

It is a complex topic that affects virtually every industry, and there is a strong consensus between lawmakers, businesses, and consumers that more needs to be done to ensure the future of our planet.

The issue of plastic waste is at the top of many agendas. While plastic has many benefits, it has poor recycling rates due to a lack of infrastructure in many countries. This means even recyclable plastics often end up as waste, leading to an increasingly negative perception from consumers. Many studies show that consumers are more willing to buy a product that has packaging that they consider to be ‘more sustainable’, perhaps containing less plastic or made from alternative materials. However, relying on a single magic-bullet solution to provide all the answers to the multi-faceted packaging sustainability equation is too simple.

Plastic is still essential in some food-packaging applications, to maintain shelf life or provide important barrier properties. And with lawmakers across the world taking firmer action on plastic consumption, food producers, brands and retailers must be ready to pull off this balancing act quickly.


Plastic bans and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) reforms

It is impossible to discuss packaging in Canada without discussing the recent Single Use Plastics Prohibition Regulations (SUPPR), which bans the manufacture, import, sale, and eventually export of several categories of single-use plastic with the central aim of decreasing the impact of plastic waste and litter. At present, the banned categories are checkout bags, cutlery, food-service ware, certain plastic rings, stir sticks, and straws, which means some Canadian organizations may not see the ban as immediately relevant to their sector.

Given the federal government’s commitment to achieving zero plastic waste across Canada by 2030, it is highly likely the number of in-scope categories will increase over the coming years. Many provinces are going further, beginning the process of implementing extended producer responsibility (EPR) reforms or product stewardship programs. Beyond Canada, the picture is largely the same. EPR reforms have been introduced in many national markets, while the French government has banned plastic packaging entirely for many fresh produce applications.

The food-waste crisis

Plastic’s multi-functionality as a material means eliminating it is not simple. The oxygen and grease barrier performance associated with polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for example, means it is vital in food-packaging applications to preserve shelf life. One of the primary benefits of packaging is the prevention of food waste – by protecting and preserving products through the supply chain. While ‘plastic-free’ packs do make for compelling marketing messages that appeal to today’s consumers, if these do not offer adequate performance, they can lead to an increase in food waste.

The impact of food waste is a huge environmental concern. The UN estimates that a third of all food produced globally is wasted. The carbon cost of this food waste equates to around six per cent of all greenhouse-gas emissions. This has a much more significant impact on the environment than packaging waste, with Imperial College London identifying that 3.8 per cent of GHG emissions come from plastic production. This might seem like a difficult choice, having to choose between food waste or packaging waste, but it can be helped with a holistic approach to packaging.

The responsibility of the packaging industry is to propose fit-for-purpose solutions that will prevent food from being unnecessarily wasted while being as circular as possible. Manufacturers must work with end users on a case-by-case basis to analyze the complete life cycle of a product. This enables producers to observe where waste arises and where optimizing the primary, secondary, or transport packaging, and in some cases, the logistics and storage conditions of products can reduce emissions through the supply chain.

Packaging – a true solution

The term ‘packaging solutions’ is an apt one, because innovative packaging can provide the solution to both problems – plastic reduction and food waste reduction. Sometimes, selecting the right alternative material, along with great structural design, can provide the answer. An example of this can be found in Graphic Packaging’s work with apple grower BelleHarvest, who switched from flexible packaging to a 100 per cent fibre-based carton for their premium apples and observed a 15 per cent reduction in defects due to bruising as a result.

Other fibre-based packaging applications may require a barrier coating or liner to be applied to provide the oxygen, moisture, or aroma barrier required. Soft fruits, prepared salads, and coffee, to name three examples, may benefit from a hybrid solution that offers significant plastic reduction benefits while using just enough plastic to provide the level of barrier protection needed. Graphic Packaging’s range of hybrid systems includes the award-winning PaperSeal™ tray range, which comprises a paperboard tray with a removable liner, with the paperboard made from renewable plant-based fibre from sustainably managed forests. Available for modified atmosphere (MAP) and vacuum skin (VSP) applications, an 80-to-90 per cent plastic reduction can be achieved compared to a traditional plastic tray – without any compromise on shelf life or performance.

Emerging bio-based technologies can offer comparable performance to fossil-based coatings for many applications. While not all of these coatings lead to different behaviour at end of life, demand for this type of coating is growing as it can be made from renewable resources. Its role in reducing food- and fossil-fuel-derived plastic waste is only going to grow as business collectively limits its reliance on finite, fossil-fuel-derived materials.

Packaging must always balance the potential for food waste with the need to reduce plastic to achieve the lowest possible carbon impact while also maintaining packaging recyclability, among many other sustainability and circularity considerations. To achieve this balance, food producers, brands and retailers should continue to work collaboratively with packaging experts to develop optimally tailored solutions for each application.

Graphic Packaging is an innovative leader in sustainable, fibre-based consumer packaging for food applications and beyond. To learn more, visit


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