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Sustainable Foodservice Packaging is Focus of Attention



According to packaging industry executives, the desire to be considered environmentally friendly is legitimate and sustainable companies tend to do business with similar companies. However, they pointed out in a recent interview with ID Access, wanting to be sustainable and fulfilling the vision are generally difficult to do and misinterpreted.

“Distributors have to make sure they’re looking for sustainable packaging in an honest and realistic manner.”
Consequently, they advised that foodservice distributors, which are also in the hunt for sustainable packaging products, and their DSRs should become educated about the processes and requirements in order to educate their operator-customers that are increasingly making more environmental demands of their suppliers.

Richard Davis, senior manager of product stewardship, Georgia-Pacific Corp., explained that the sustainable vision is incomplete without an understanding of what is demanded by its fulfillment. Davis said it is important for the foodservice supply chain to comprehend that insisting on comprehensive sustainable products is more than getting a cup or food try that is environmentally safe. He pointed out that environmentally friendly, as defined by the United Nations and others, means that every bit of energy used in the entire process, including generating energy to make energy, manufacturing the product, printing and preparing that package, and delivering it to the marketplace must come from reusable sources.

“Distributors have to make sure they’re looking for sustainable packaging in an honest and realistic manner and not use the vision that ‘I will only purchase and you must manufacturer packaging for me using all renewable energy sources.’ That won’t happen,” Davis said in the interview.

Nonetheless, distributors and all of society should be considering sustainable issues in all facets of life for all purposes, he added.

“Distributors should absolutely be looking for sustainable packaging,” Davis urged.

He said a lot of foodservice customers have demonstrated their interest in sustainable products and purchased them but when he asked them what they think sustainable means, most of them only talk about environmental issues. Davis remarked that the difficulty with that is that sustainability is not just about the environment and environmental attributes of the product.

According to William R. Blackburn, author of “The Sustainability Handbook,” “sustainability is a concept describing mankind’s ability to create a world for humans and non-humans that environmentally, socially and economically provides for a current population’s needs without damaging the ability of future generations to take care of themselves.”

The Foodservice & Packaging Institute, Falls Church, VA, has pointed out that Blackburn and the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development note that sustainability should be a three-pronged approach to creating a better current and future world.

THREE REQUIREMENTS FOR SUSTAINABILITY Sustainable actions demonstrate a concern for society (social responsibility), a concern for economic growth for society (economic responsibility), and a concern for the environment (environmental responsibility) that all of society’s creatures need to survive. All three sustainable responsibilities should be of equal value, and no one responsibility should supersede or be more valued than the others. For society to be sustainable, it must be in balance, they emphasize.

According to John R. Burke, president of the institute, most sustainable foodservice packaging products are made from alternative materials such as biopolymers from corn or sugar starch; non-tree cellulose such as bamboo; or a combination such as potato starch and other ingredients.

“These alternative materials have been made in response to customer desires for environmentally-friendly products,” he said in the interview.

Burke said he explains to distributors and operators that environmentally-friendly packaging carries a premium price tag because of the R&D, marketing and advertising investments. As a result, operators who ultimately use the higher-priced products must pay attention that they are getting the full impact of their investment in sustainable products.

“If they’re going to pay a premium for these materials then they need to be sure that they can take advantage of the environmental characteristics of being biodegradable, and compostable,” Burke advised.

First of all, operators should make sure that the environmentally-friendly products that they have ordered are not thrown away with common garbage that wind up in a landfill, he recommends.

“The end-user operator needs to be able to separate those materials and then they should be sure they’re sending the material to a municipal composting facility. If they don’t have one, then they’ve paid a premium for the product and they’re not getting their money’s worth. Operators should be cognizant that there is a little more work involved with environmental products,” Burke said, adding that if the products end up in a landfill operators have wasted their money and can’t really brag about their switch to sustainable products.

POPULARITY OF SUSTAINABILITY While the institute does not have statistics about usage of environmentally-friendly packaging, Burke said it is most popular on the West Coast and Vermont. It is also popular and in demand among college foodservice operators.

“We’re having more customers (distributors and operators) asking questions and showing interest in wanting to be considered a sustainable company therefore they want to buy materials from suppliers that are considered to be sustainable,” observed Davis.

Finally, having explained what sustainable packaging is, Burke and Davis emphasized, the finished product must fulfill the function that it was designed to do. If a true environmentally-friendly cup or tray does not protect the food and consumer, then it has not satisfied the marketplace’s needs.

“Manufacturers have a responsibility and obligation to ensure that packaging protects food. We could manufacture an extremely good product that is compostable and uses only renewable energy sources but it doesn’t work. You can envision a great product but if it doesn’t work then we haven’t protected the food,” Davis said.

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