Clean and clear labeling is a well-established trend in the food and drinks industry to the extent that it is becoming widely regarded as a standard. 
In 2019, more than one-quarter of global food and drinks launches (including supplements) tracked by Innova Market Insights used a clean label claim of some kind (no additives/preservatives, natural, organic or GMO free), rising to 37% in North America and an even more impressive 46% in Australia/New Zealand.  Furthermore, this share is continuing to rise, with an annual average growth rate of 7% from 2015 to 2019.

With this trend now established, consumer interest increasingly is shifting to other aspects of clean food and drinks. Sustainability has emerged as a key driver, particularly with regard to packaging and plastics.

Packaging is necessary to modern food production and retailing but it can produce unacceptable, un-recyclable waste at a time when consumers are interested in reducing waste. This is particularly true in terms of food packaging and even more so for plastic.  Plastic creates special issues of both sourcing (fossil fuels or other hydrocarbons) and treatment (potential for re-use as well as incineration).

Companies use claims on food and beverage packages as a key vehicle to communicate their commitment to sustainability. The majority of claims pertain to the packaging itself—with language referencing terms such as recyclable, biodegradable, compostable, “environment-friendly” and minimized waste. Some companies also call out the absence of undesirable compounds such as bisphenol A and phthalates.  A high proportion of soft drinks display a packaging recyclability claim, while claims regarding the protection of the environment, population and workforce, animals in the food supply, and sustainability itself are less common.


Recycling Revolution?

As circular economy targets loom on the horizon, the incorporation of recycled plastics into packaging is on the rise. Around the world there are an increasing number of Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) supply partnerships and ChemCycling (a BASF term) activities across a range of industries.

In the meantime, more bottles are hitting the 100% recycled plastics milestone. Other formats—such as trays, bowls and cups—also are catching up with increasingly high percentages of PCR material. As suppliers come up with more recycle-ready, mono-material solutions, many (along with CPG customers) are targeting causes such as ocean clean-up or renewable energy.

In the latter case, Aripack Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y., says its proprietary NEO packaging contains an organic additive and once it ends up in a landfill, it accelerates the natural microbial digestion of the package. During this process, biogases are released and can be collected and turned into clean, renewable energy.

Initiatives in recycled plastics usage have gained a fairly high profile, particularly from leading soft drinks companies. In August 2019, Coca-Cola’s Dasani bottled water brand announced the introduction of the Hybrid Bottle, which was Coca-Cola’s first US market pack to be made from a mixture of 50% plant-based renewable material (the PlantBottle) and recycled PET. It was scheduled for nationwide roll-out by the middle of 2020.

Campbell's Sustainable Packaging Goals
Four new packaging goals include plans to transition 100% of packaging to recyclable or industrially compostable designs and materials by 2030; and Increase use of post-consumer recycled content and incorporate 25% post-consumer recycled content into polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles by 2030. PHOTO COURTESY OF: CAMPBELL SOUP COMPANY (WWW.CAMPBELLSOUPCOMPANY.COM)

It was 10 years earlier in 2009, when Dasani created its first fully recyclable PlantBottle, made partially from plants. Parent Coca-Cola announced its “World Without Waste” initiative in 2018 and its goals include helping to collect and recycle the equivalent of a bottle or can for each one that it sells by 2030. This helps to increase the amount of recycled materials that are used in its products to an average of 50% by 2030 and to make all of its packaging recyclable by 2025.

In Europe, the company has already announced a plan to reach the goal of 50% recycled content in plastic bottles by 2023. This is two years earlier than originally planned and accelerates to 100% recycled or renewable content thereafter. In Sweden, the company also is breaking new ground with the first Coca-Cola system market in the world to make all plastic bottles from rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate), starting in the first quarter of 2020.

Rival PepsiCo also has been active advancing the circular economy for plastics in the US. At the end of June it said its LIFEWTR purified water brand is moving to 100% rPET. This is just one of its brand initiatives aimed at advancing the company’s goal to make 100% of its packaging recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025. It also vows to use 25% recycled plastic content in all plastic packaging.

Nestlé Waters North America said it is targeting 25% recycled plastic (PCR) use by 2021 and 50% by 2025. Its Poland Spring brand announced in mid-2020 that it was targeting 100% recycled plastic use for its still waters by 2022. That brand already had started with packaging for its niche Poland Spring Origin brand in 2019. The brand’s Poland Spring 1-liter bottles joined the initiative in mid-2020.

Elsewhere, Unilever greeted 2020 with three new ready-to-drink TAZO tea beverages. Officials say bottles of TAZO Zen, Awake and Passion tea varieties all use 100% recycled plastics.

Finally, last fall saw Coca-Cola Co., Keurig Dr Pepper and PepsiCo launch of the Every Bottle Back initiative in conjunction with the American Beverage Association (ABA). The $100 million program engages The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as a strategic scientific partner (measuring progress). Also involved are The Recycling Partnership and Closed Loop Partners, who will assist in deploying funds for the initiative.  First steps called for as much as a $3 million investment in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, market for recycling infrastructure, education and collection.

“Our industry recognizes the serious need to reduce new plastic in our environment, and we want to do our part to lead with innovative solutions,” said Katherine Lugar, ABA president and CEO. “Our bottles are designed to be remade, and that is why this program is so important. We are excited to partner with the leading environmental and recycling organizations to build a circular system for the production, use, recovery and remaking of our bottles. Every Bottle Back will ensure that our plastic bottles are recovered after use and remade into new bottles, so we can reduce the amount of new plastic used to bring our beverages to market. This is an important step for our industry, and it builds on our ongoing commitment to protecting the environment for generations to come.”


Biodegradable, Compostable

It is thought that bioplastics could experience strong growth in demand, despite not all being biodegradable or biodegrading more readily than commodity fossil-fuel derived plastics. Interestingly, however, with rising aversion to single-use plastics, biodegradable plastics production and demand seem set for major growth in the food and drinks market.

There is an increasing focus on developing a range of biodegradable and compostable alternatives from renewable resources. Cellulose-based packaging has been at the forefront of plant-based innovation, but there are numerous developments in biodegradable/compostable packaging initiatives, led by snacks and confectionery, which accounted for over 60% of global food and drinks launches with certified compostable claims tracked by Innova Market Insights from 2017 to 2020.

Several European markets have examples of compostable packaging. In the United Kingdom, Wallaroo Foods turned to compostable bags for its Pineapple Chunks, Mango Slices and Coconut Chips. Elsewhere, grocery retailer Planet Organic turned to compostable bags for its chocolate coated nuts and fruit. Other examples involve products—particularly chocolates—from France, Germany and The Netherlands.

Tea and coffee companies also have been active in this area. The market has seen teas launched in compostable bags inside paper/cardboard outer boxes. Likewise, coffee manufacturers have focused on developing compostable capsules and pods. Examples here include such leading brands as Lavazza and Jacobs Douwe Egberts’ Senseo; as well as private labels including Monoprix and Carrefour of France, Aldi’s Moreno in Germany and El Corte Ingles in Spain.


Other developments in compostability include the launch of compostable cling films. Suppliers BASF and Novamont both introduced sustainable solutions—debuting as ecovio and MATER-BI respectively—for fresh food packaging. Meanwhile, the U.K.’s Camvac developed a decorative biodegradable and home-compostable metalized film, known as Camvert, as an alternative to metalized polyester.

In addition, Tetra Pak started field testing of paper straws for its beverage products in Europe, initially in two smaller packs for children’s drinks. The straws are made from FSC-certified paper and can be recycled with the rest of the package. Tetra Pak also said it will publish and share its paper straw innovation details to support industrial collaboration on alternatives to single-use plastic straws on beverage cartons. The company has also announced that it is exploring biodegradable options such as PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate), a polymer derived from plant-based materials; and looking at other sustainable drink-from developments such as tethered caps and integrated drink-from systems.

Anti-plastic sentiment also is propelling market alternatives, particularly from smaller companies with an exclusive, often premium image. The U.K.’s Hadleigh Maid—a long-established small firm making chocolate and chocolate products—represents a good example of this trend. In 2018, it announced its ambition to become the first chocolate company to be plastic-free. After various initiatives over the following two years, it launched its Plastic Free Collection in 2020. The new offerings debuted online with a planned release as well through retail outlets.

Hadleigh officials say the process started with the removal of plastic lids and bases from internal packaging, followed by the removal of window patches from the company’s Whirls product. It also removed plastic trays from selection boxes and finally, shifted from plastic bags to recyclable alternatives. The line now provides a plastic-free option for environmentally conscious consumers and is set to continue to expand as developments allow.

From 2015 to 2019, more than one-third of all food and beverage launches tracked by Innova Market Insights carried an “ethical” packaging claim (e.g. recycled or recyclable materials). Meanwhile, it’s clear that manufacturers have many options for promoting the story around packaging sustainability. On-pack language refers to terms involving energy use, renewable materials, plastic-free, source reduction and “end of lifecycle.” There also are various related “trust marks” and certification logos such as “Plastic Free’ and “Metal Recycles Forever,” to communicate resource circularity.

Innova’s consumer research indicates that consumer expectations around sustainability are higher than ever and this is pushing companies to prioritize eco-efficiency in food and packaging. In response, CPG leaders are addressing a more mindful consumer’s expectations in this area—and using on-pack language and more to demonstrate their commitment.

Innova’s top trend for 2020, “Storytelling: Winning with Words,” demonstrates the power of sharing stories to cultivate strong connections with consumers. Companies can use narratives about sustainability efforts to inform and educate consumers, build relationships, and foster brand and company loyalty.

Originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Prepared Foods as Healthy Choices.