Companies are going to great lengths to reduce and eliminate the use of non-sustainable materials in the face of public opposition. However, in the packaging space, while options like polystyrene might not be eco-friendly, they do offer a number of benefits.
Companies are going to great lengths to reduce and eliminate the use of non-sustainable materials in the face of public opposition. However, in the packaging space, while options like polystyrene might not be eco-friendly, they do offer a number of benefits—including low cost and durability. Items like food and pharmaceuticals must be kept at cool temperatures during transportation, limiting the materials that can be used in the cold chain. This makes it very difficult to prioritise environmentally friendly alternatives.
I recently published an article outlining some of the solutions that companies have devised to move away from single-use plastics, but these aren’t always practicable. This applies to packaging for any product that must stay at a controlled temperature to avoid spoilage, such as perishable goods (food, beverages, pharmaceuticals or chemicals). For example, when thinking about ice cream, the packaging must keep the product frozen while enduring extreme temperatures. And not all compostable packages are robust enough to survive the cold chain.
Plastic packaging can serve to protect and preserve the product; in transit, for instance, perishable items are at risk of being damaged or exposed to heat or moisture. Glass, another alternative, isn’t only rigid and heavy, but creates more CO2 than plastic when recycled. Reverse logistics is one solution to reducing our reliance on unsustainable materials, but it still presents logistical problems, especially in the last mile of transport with perishable goods—i.e. when the product is delivered to the end customer.
Despite the more eco-friendly solutions available, 90% of traditional cool packaging systems are made of polystyrene and most of it is going to landfill.
Some of the current technology available in the cold chain space includes:
Insulated packaging: this type of packaging can be made out recycled products, such as cardboard (corrugated paper) or other fibres and aluminium.
Recycled expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam: not all EPS can be recycled, but most can be.
Green thermal boxes: these are becoming increasingly popular. They’re still very expensive, but are slowly becoming more affordable. A green thermal box maintains a temperature for up to five days. Sonoco popularised this technology and Vericool is one of the companies that has started to commercialize more adaptable solutions.
Plant-based plastic containers are a solution that Coca-Cola started implementing a decade ago and their goal is to stop producing petroleum-based bottles by 2020.
As companies look for solutions that will allow them to move away from non-recyclable materials in cold chain packaging, this means that they need to hire individuals with specific skill sets and backgrounds, including packaging engineers with cold chain and sustainable packaging experience.
It’s very difficult to find candidates with this precise combination of skills, but those who do have them are highly sought after. Historically, individuals from the US were more likely to have worked in these areas, but technology is now improving and countries like Canada, UK, India and the Netherlands are catching up.
Typical candidates for roles in this area have 10-15+ years of experience and have worked across a variety of fields and companies, meaning they’ve had exposure to either responsible packaging, cold chain and innovation.
If this sounds like you, now is an exciting time to think about your career in the sustainable packaging space.
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