Packaging up a more sustainable future in food manufacturing

Plastic packaging gets a bad (w)rap these days. And for good reason. It threatens marine life, it washes up on pristine beaches, and it piles up in landfill. In fact, Australia alone produces 2.5m tonnes of plastic waste each year. Consumers are starting to speak out, demanding that brands take more responsibility over the types of packaging they use.

Yet, as every food manufacturer will point out, we need packaging. It’s essential to prevent food spoilage and enable the mass distribution of products. What’s more, packaging labels are an important communication tool, containing helpful information so consumers can make more informed choices about the products they buy.

So, what’s the answer? Can brands safely and cost-effectively bring products to market with minimal environmental impact? The answer, if the initiatives below are anything to go by, is a resounding ‘yes’.


Sustainable packaging will soon be mandatory

The Australian government clearly believes that it’s possible for brands to reduce the environmental impact of their packaging. Back in 2018, the government announced some ambitious targets to make packaging more sustainable, including:

Recycling Packaging

While these targets may feel like huge hurdles, they exist for a reason – and one would hope that they are achievable. Yet, for many commercial businesses, a lot of work will need to be done in the next few years to hit the targets.


Recycling programs help reduce the load

A number of fantastic recycling programs and initiatives help brands and consumers lessen the load of plastic packaging in Australia.

The first is the Australasian Recycling Label Program. This Planet Ark initiative helps remove the confusion about what parts of a package can be recycled. Brands can add clear, concise instructions to their labels to help consumers do the right thing with recycling.

Then there’s REDcycle, which makes it easy for consumers to keep plastic bags and packaging out of landfill. From bread bags to cereal box liners to ice-cream wrappers, packaging can be dropped into participating stores and is then processed so it can be reused in a huge range of recycled-plastic products.

Finally, major retailers are jumping on board with their own sustainability initiatives. For example, Coles has established a sustainability concept store in Moonee Ponds and is trialling initiatives such as a laundry detergent refill station in partnership with Unilever. Woolworths is replacing reusable plastic bags with paper grocery bags similar to those of the 70s and early 80s. And both Coles and Woolworths are well ahead of the 2025 government targets in terms of phasing out of single-use plastics such as drinking straws and disposable eating utensils.


Food for thought for brand owners

To stay relevant and meet the new packaging targets, brand owners need to start thinking differently. Look back to the way things were before, and consider the saying, ‘Everything old is new again’. A generation or two ago, Vegemite jars had a second life as drinking glasses; olive jars became biscuit tins. Milk and juice were delivered in returnable bottles.

Savvy brands are re-embracing these sustainable practices. Home delivery of consumer good is steadily growing, and brands have a great opportunity to close the loop by with return mechanisms for packaging reuse and in-store recycling programs.

While 2025 is still four years away, companies with automated packing lines need to act now. Take a commercial baker of sliced bread. If they have multiple manufacturing facilities and fully automated packing, a change to packaging is potentially huge. Not only is there the cost, time and logistics associated with heavily modifying or replacing existing packaging equipment, there are retailer and consumer expectations around product shelf life that would be compromised by a move to paper. Some mix of product reformulation, costing technology applied to the paper and adjustment of retailer and consumer expectations would be needed.


Taking your next steps

If you have questions or concerns about your brand’s move to more sustainable packaging, get in touch today. Our packaging experts will help you map a proven way forward that helps you meet the government’s packaging targets by 2025 – while still delivering on consumer expectations for your product.