/ 18 June 2021

Sustainable Food Packaging

Packaging 7
Woolworths is working hard to ensure that its packaging is recyclable

Food retailers start to go green

Four years ago renowned British broadcaster and natural historian David Attenborough made a documentary series that changed how consumers in a number of countries viewed plastics.

Blue Planet II contained some heartbreaking moments, such as when an albatross fed plastic to her chicks.

“Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet and never before have we had the power to do something about that. Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet,” Attenborough said.

The series sparked a movement in many Western countries to have plastic straws banned, as these are one of the biggest polluters of the world’s oceans. A survey done by British supermarket Waitrose in 2018 with 2000 respondents showed that most of them changed their attitude towards plastic after seeing the series, and more than half started using reusable water bottles.

In South Africa, this trend caught on too, especially among the youth. According to a Broll Property Intel Retail snapshot report in 2019 called Retailers’ Transparency and Sustainability, consumers — especially Millennials and Gen Z — wanted to know more about the products they purchased with regards to sustainability and environmental impact.

“In an era where information and data is freely available, consumers have become more aware of today’s pressures — be it environmental, social and/or economical. Retailers’ target markets are no longer making purchases solely based on taste, price or convenience,” the report states.

The report also states that activism around single-use plastics was overtaken by the effort to combat Covid-19 at the start of 2020, but the pandemic also brought about a greater awareness of how important it is to maintain a good relationship with the environment.

Reusing food packaging and keeping these out of the waste stream isn’t new. Global manufacturer of paper and woodpulp products, Sappi, in its tips on how to reduce, reuse and recycle, notes: “Reusing manufactured materials and containers is a discipline that was second nature to our parents and grandparents, and is one that we all need to develop again.”

It notes that making use of reusable shopping bags, instead of disposable ones, is a good way to help lighten the load on the environment.

It was also the year that South Africa’s 10-year countdown of its “zero-waste to landfill” agenda started. Industry regulations will enforce change to a degree, but manufacturers will also need some incentives to keep costs low in an industry that is pressed for margins.

The cost is normally passed on to the consumer, and a balance should be found between cost to the environment and financial costs.

One retail chain that has consciously embarked on a journey towards zero packaging waste to landfill is Woolworths, which has set itself a goal of 2022. In April it announced that 52 more stores will do away with single-use plastic shopping bags, taking the total number of stores shunning this form of packaging to over 200. It also replaced polystyrene plastic packaging with a kraft box base for its “Ripe and Ready” avocados, made from 63% recycled paper, equating to an annual plastic saving of between 35 and 40 tonnes. It is covered with a fully recyclable shrink wrap.

Latiefa Behardien, Woolworths Head of Foods Technology, Safety and Good Business Journey, called it “a significant achievement at a time when we have had so many supply uncertainties”.

She said the sustainable choices didn’t come without challenges: the retailer worked with its suppliers and packaging manufacturers for over two years on the new design.

Some of the changes Woolworths envisages making towards its 2022 goal is to use less packaging, use less material for their packaging, and ensure that all their packaging is recyclable in South Africa.

Smaller chains such as The Refillery, which has three branches in Gauteng, are also offering retail experiences with minimal packaging, or packaging made from beeswax.

Husband and wife team Samantha and Dom Moleta opened the plastic-free store in March 2019 at Cedar Park in Fourways after their six years in the yachting industry exposed them first-hand to the impact unrecycled single-use plastic waste has on the oceans. They use beeswax wrappers in place of cling-wrap and encourage customers to bring their own containers to fill up. They also sell glass containers.

Goods at The Refillery are at times cheaper than in supermarkets, and buying by weight means consumers can buy smaller quantities.

What makes food packaging green?

Reducing food waste

Millions of tonnes of food — or roughly a third of what is produced, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation — go to waste worldwide every year, and packaging can play a big role to help extend shelf life. For example, the right packaging can extend the shelf life of bananas and ground beef by three weeks.

Sappi has a number of bicycle and running trails within its forests

Tetra Pak has cutting-edge processing and packaging equipment that keeps food from being spoiled in the early stages of production. Its packaging solutions help prolong the life of food and prevent it from perishing. Adjusting package size may help if it is found that consumers cannot finish the contents of a larger-sized container before it spoils.

Fully recyclable 

Some food producers prefer to focus on making packaging fully recyclable. According to the Fibre Circle, the organisation responsible for the paper and packaging sector, it is important for manufacturers to determine where their products sit on their collectability and recyclability matrix.

It says all types of paper contain fibre, whether virgin fibre, recycled or a combination. “Once converted into a paper product, whether it be a cardboard box, office paper or a beverage carton, paper products have varying degrees of collectability and recyclability, depending on what has been added to give it form and function,” the Fibre Circle says.

Fully recyclable means that all components of the packaging are recyclable. Packaging comprising cardboard with a plastic laminate window might not be fully recyclable: the cardboard component is recyclable, but the plastic window might not be, or they might need to be recycled separately.

Those products that are recyclable, in turn, may be difficult to collect from household or business waste streams, possibly due to lack of awareness, consumer convenience or infrastructure. Other products might be easy to collect but difficult to recycle.

Reducing emissions along the supply chain

Preserving the environment is also about limiting the effect of harmful carbon emissions along the supply chain. Mpact, the largest paper and plastics packaging and recycling company in Southern Africa, says in its Sustainability Review 2020 that the company realises its “key role in closing the loop in the circular economy”.

Part of that is limiting emissions. “The manufacturing process requires energy and water as inputs and produces atmospheric emissions that include carbon emissions, as well as waste,” it states. The company therefore focuses on responsible sourcing of raw materials. It also states that an increasing percent of the high-density polyethylene it uses to manufacture crates and wheelie bins comes from recycled sources.

The group relies on coal as the main source of energy for on-site steam generation, and it uses conventional electricity, but last year it commissioned a new rooftop solar PV installation at Mpact’s Plastics Containers Brits operation. Plans to add solar to its other units and sites are in the pipeline.

Getting the right equipment in place

One of the aspects of Tetra Pak’s approach to sustainability is getting the right equipment in place for its customers. The company, which brings more than four decades of experience to the table, says automation is one way to increase efficiency and give customers “control of their equipment, lines and all of their operations”.

Some examples of the equipment it uses is its new JNSD beverage line architecture, which combines filtration and UV treatment to cut down energy-consuming heat treatments, and reducing overall energy costs by about 67%. It also reduces water used in cleaning in place and sterilisation in place by about half.

Looking after communities and the environment

Looking after the people who work for you is as important as the product that you create. At Sappi, for example, “seeding and growing human potential is at the heart of sustainability”. It starts with those who work for the South African pulp and paper company — which has global renewable resource operations — and extends to the surrounding communities where Sappi operates across the world.

“We invest in our over 13000-strong workforce, setting them up for success in the jobs of tomorrow, not just today,” the company says. “Our values are our roots, supporting a culture where all people are treated equally and do business safely, with integrity and courage.”

Sappi is also thinking laterally when it comes to educating consumers about the environment. On World Bicycle Day on 3 June, the company highlighted the fact that the trails in its forests, built through Sappi’s Trail Programme, are being used for cycling and trail running, especially now that people are looking for ways to partake in healthy outdoor exercise and safe social activity. The Karkloof Trail, created from a strong partnership between Sappi and the Karkloof Country Club, was among the TREAD Top 20 Trails of 2020.

In action at Simply Being: Eating clean and recycling clean

Megan Betty owns the company Simply Being, which makes and delivers healthy home-made vegan meals. Simply Being’s philosophy is “about living close to nature, not imposing on the environment and existing in a simpler, less cluttered manner”. Betty talked to us about why she chooses paper packaging over plastics to get delicious plant-based meals to her customers.

Owner of Simply Being Megan Betty says her company uses biodegradable packaging, which is actually not that expensive, for its plant-based meals

Briefly describe the kind of food that you sell, and your customers.

Simply Being produces a wide variety of delicious homemade plant-based meals, cooked fresh on the day and delivered to people’s homes. People who buy from us are generally busy with work, parenting or just don’t enjoy cooking. However, they still want to eat food that’s delicious. As an added bonus it’s healthy, homemade, full of vitality, and free from nasties.

How long have you been in the business?

We’ve been running Simply Being for two years in September; before starting this, I worked in a restaurant for six years.

How did the Covid-19 lockdown affect your business?

Covid has made people more aware of the importance of food quality and the need to make more sustainable, earth-friendly choices. The lockdown brought on new customers who were working from home and found they were eating too much random stuff, or they just no longer wanted to eat the lunch available at their work. Some people want to be able to give their families plant-based meals that are as good as, if not much more delicious, than traditional alternatives.

People say the lockdown sparked a bigger demand for take-away and convenience food. Was this true for you?

Simply Being had just established itself when Covid-19 hit. We thought it would take a while for the business to get going again once restrictions were dropped, but we are so fortunate to have many wonderful customers who have been very loyal to us. We are incredibly grateful that they have remained loyal, even after lockdown.

Simply Being makes home-made vegan meals

Did you always use sustainable packaging to sell your food in; if not, what made you change over?

Initially we used conventional packaging and after two weeks realised that this was not sustainable. We then invested in glass containers with clip-on lids which people returned, but we obviously had to stop that once Covid-19 arrived. At that stage we switched over to biodegradable/compostable packaging.

We also deliver the food in veggie boxes rather than plastic bags. We try, wherever possible, to buy our produce in boxes rather than polystyrene containers. But it is not just in the area of packaging that we try to be as sustainable as possible. We collect the water we use to wash the fresh produce and use it to water our veggies and herbs that grow in pots. We hardly have any waste — what isn’t fed to the earthworms/ bokashi bucket/ compost heap is recycled, leaving very little to throw away at the end of the week. If there’s food left over, we either eat it ourselves or give it away.

What are the advantages and disadvantages for you of using this packaging?

The advantage is that it is less damaging to the environment than regular packaging. The disadvantages are that we can’t always get the sizes we want, or something we rely on gets discontinued.

Is sustainable packaging a lot more expensive than “conventional” packaging — if so, do you find customers are willing to pay a little bit extra for it?

It is not that much more expensive, as we buy larger quantities now than we did before. We never changed our prices.

Where do you buy your sustainable food packaging?

We buy our packaging from Enviromall.

If you’re looking for renewable and sustainable packaging, look no further than paper

Wood: the raw material of countless products, both common and conventional, from copy paper and books, to tissues and toilet rolls, pencils and paper packaging. Even recycled paper came from wood originally. Wood and paper are renewable and sustainable — and misunderstood.

Jane Molony, executive director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa

“Many people don’t know that timber plantations in South Africa were established to provide an alternative timber supply, and protect our few natural forests from further deforestation,” says Jane Molony, executive director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA).

These timber plantations cover 1.2-million hectares of land, and forestry and its related industries are responsible for hundreds of products and many thousands of jobs. Approximately 150 000 South Africans are employed by these industries, which contribute R62-billion to the country’s economy annually.

But misconceptions abound: that wood and paper products are somehow less environmentally friendly, and that timber plantations destroy natural ecosystems. And yet in other countries, wood and its byproducts, such as paper and wood pulp, are rapidly gaining a reputation for being the ultimate renewable.

Carbon stays locked in wood

“The forestry and harvested wood product cycle stores carbon,” says Molony. “While they’re growing, trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This carbon stays locked up in the wood, even when it’s turned into paper and other items.

“If you recycle paper products, the carbon stays locked up even longer. It’s only released if the wood products rot or are burnt.” 

The commercial forestry sector uses sustainable, efficient and effective practices with the lowest environmental impact, but which also deliver significant social and economic benefits, all while providing consumers with a large range of products.

Renewable through replanting

In commercial forestry, specific species are planted, harvested and replanted in sustainable rotation, so that there are always trees at various stages of growth, and a supply for generations to come. 

Recyclable paper packaging

The sector is even responsible for maintaining and protecting some indigenous forests. “The natural forests in our sector’s care are protected by law,” Molony points out, “and they are managed carefully so that alien invasive plant species are controlled. Plantations and their margins are protected from the impact of fire, pests and disease.

“In addition, only 70% of forestry-owned land is managed for production; we leave a large proportion to form natural ecological networks of wetlands, grasslands and indigenous flora throughout the forestry landscape, providing habitat for numerous species.”

Good water stewardship

“We are very aware of the effects of trees on water resources,” says Molony. “While forestry is responsible for around 4.6% of the country’s water use, we make every effort to reduce our impact on water resources.” Unlike agricultural crops such as sugar cane and maize, plantations are never irrigated, which is why they are always located in high rainfall areas, and the industry applies best practice, such as conserving and managing key freshwater ecosystems on forestry-owned land.

Buy wood and paper responsibly and locally

By purchasing certified paper products, consumers can be assured they are purchasing responsibly sourced materials. Look for the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) mark or products carrying the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) identification.

“South Africans can be proud of their forestry and paper industry,” Molony says, “as one that is environmentally, socially and economically responsible. And we are proud of the contribution we make — to our economy, to the environment, and to the people of South Africa, whose lives are enhanced daily by the wide variety of wood and paper products we produce.”

Tips to cut down on the use of plastic packaging

Bea Johnson is an environmentalist, author and motivational speaker who started the Zero Waste movement in the US. She has developed a well-known practical guide for consumers on how to reduce their waste.

Next time you buy takeaway coffee, bring your own reusable cup. (Photo: Bartalks.net)

She boiled it down to a 5 R’s method (refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot):

Refuse what you do not need


• plastic cutlery with your next take-away order and ask for biodegradable options, or even better, use your own if you are at home.

• plastic bags when you go shopping. Keep reusable bags handy or ask for groceries to be packed in boxes (if available) which you can recycle.

• plastic containers when you replace food containers; rather choose glass.

• single-use coffee cup when you next buy your take-away coffee, instead remember to take your own reusable cup.

• convenient squeeze-tops for products such as tomato sauce, honey and mayonnaise; rather choose a glass jar.

Reduce what you do need


• the use of single-use plastic water bottles by investing in a filtration jug which reduces chlorine, metals and pesticides from tap water, or fix your home tap with a filter which will do the same. (each recyclable water filter cartridge can filter about 100 litres of tap water, which eliminates the need for 100 one-litre single-use plastic bottles!) 

• the need for unnecessary packing, by buying your fruit and vegetables from the farmer’s market; this also supports local growers and avoids unnecessary packaging.

• by buying dry goods and cleaning products in bulk, and store them in labelled glass jars.

Reuse by using reusables


• cloth shopping bags as well as reusable metal or bamboo straws in place of single-use plastic straws.

• non-plastic or BPA-free water bottles for your freshly filtered water.

• plastic food containers, such as Tupperware and plastic ziplock bags,

• bowl covers such as beeswax wraps or silicone bowl covers, instead of plastic cling-wrap to keep your food fresh.

Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse


• appropriate plastic food packages to reduce your carbon footprint. To this end, look for biodegradable, bio-plastic products in place of conventional, petroleum-based plastics.

Rot (compost) the rest

• avoid buying plastic cutlery for parties or picnics; rather opt for biodegradable bamboo plates and cutlery instead.

• Compost the food you usually throw away in the bin.