Packaging - the good guy in the supply chain

Thanks to new research and greater innovation, packaging can both reduce manufacturer’s costs and deliver significant sustainability benefits, says Amcor


Many consumers think of packaging as a necessary evil. How many of us tut about it as we throw bags, packets and boxes into the bin after unpacking our groceries or medicines?

It’s a perception that Amcor, one of the world’s major packaging companies, servicing many of the largest food and healthcare brands globally, is working hard to change. But, as with so many areas of life, especially when it comes to sustainability, things are not as simple as they seem at first. As Amcor points out, packaging produced the right way can actually help the environment rather than damage it.

“If it does its job by reducing waste and protecting the product, packaging is the good guy in the supply chain,” says Ken MacKenzie, managing director and chief executive of Amcor. “A lot of the work that we do for our customers involves reducing the cost of packaging to help their profitability. That’s also very good from an environmental perspective. We’re taking weight out of packaging, and we’re reducing materials and energy consumption.”

Consider, he says, a bag of cherries. Cherries eaten in the UK probably come from somewhere like Turkey. “Cherries are highly perishable and, if unprotected, they have a shelf life of about seven to fourteen days,” says Mr MacKenzie. “But with well-designed packaging and with proper handling that can be extended up to 40 days.”

The food business in the UK is fast changing and highly competitive, but very often the most exciting innovation in our supermarkets is the packaging. Bagged, pre-washed salads have, for example, become hugely popular over the last decade or so and Amcor has a leading market share for these bags.

“Have you ever wondered why it is that if you take a lettuce and cut it up, within a few hours it will be brown and wilting, whereas your bagged salads last a week?” he asks. “This is because of our ‘modified atmospheric packaging’. Like Gore-tex with clothing, it breathes. We micro-perforate the bag so that it breathes at the optimal respiratory rate for whatever it contains. This extends the life of the product, such as salad, and means that there is less need to throw it away so there’s less need to create new product, which also means less packaging, less energy and fewer trucks on the roads.”

Thanks to the $100- million investment into research at its 19 centres of excellence worldwide, Amcor can constantly offer new products to its vast range of clients, as well as responding to those clients’ demands. Sustainability is a higher priority for some consumers than others. Either way the calculations required are varied and intricate. In the UK, for example, Amcor manufactures a different bag for new potatoes depending on the point during the harvest at which they’re packed. This is because the respiratory rate of the potatoes changes over their life cycle.

“It’s all about extending the shelf life and reducing the waste, and doing the right thing by the environment,” says Mr MacKenzie. He cites research from the United Nations that around one third of all food produced is lost or wasted, meaning all the energy, water and other resources that go into producing, transporting, storing and preparing that food is squandered. Amcor points to another counter-intuitive fact about sustainability in packaging: just because a packaging product is recyclable doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing for the environment. Amcor finds that in many cases it’s not the recyclability of a package that makes it more sustainable, but its weight.

In many cases it’s not the recyclability of a package that makes it more sustainable, but its weight

“We have what we call a life-cycle analysis tool that allows us to analyse the differing cradle-to-grave environmental impacts of various types of packaging,” he says. “So, for example, if a customer comes to us with a yoghurt that they want to take to market, we can look at a plastic-based or a paper-based solution, among others, tell them about the environmental impact of each option and the trade-offs they’ll have to make in each case.”

Packaging can tackle drug counterfeiting as well, which helps to keep fake and unregulated drugs out of circulation. This is especially important in emerging markets where counterfeit medicine is becoming a daily problem. Amcor’s N’CRYPT® security solution currently protects approximately $15- billion-worth of pharmaceutical products around the world. It uses various technologies, such as specialised printing techniques and authentication features, with secure production and supply chain processes.

With almost any product, thanks to its sophisticated and extensive research tools, Amcor can identify and create a solution that is good for the client’s bottom line – and the environment.

DOING AS THEY SAY

As well as producing sustainable packaging, Amcor is committed to sustainable practices in its operations:

• Landfill: reduced by 31 per cent since 2010-11; target by 2016: 50 per cent

• Water usage: reduced by 12 per cent since 2010-11; target by 2016: 25 per cent

• CO2 emissions: reduced by 13 per cent since 2010-11; target by 2016: 10 per cent.

In February, Amcor unveiled the $500-million B9 paper machine, which uses 100 per cent pre and post-consumer waste.

SWEET THOUGHT

The carbon footprint of sugar is more than 50 times that of its packaging. If something goes wrong with the packaging and the sugar is wasted, then more energy, fertiliser and water will be needed to grow, harvest and refine more sugar to replace it.