The search for the ideal packaging

The media often focuses on the negative environmental impact of packaging, while its positive contribution to waste reduction, by protecting food in transit and extending shelf life, for example, are under-reported. So which packaging to choose?

Over the past few years, manufacturers, and particularly consumers, have become more critical of the types and amounts of packaging used, says Susan Hansen, Global Strategist F&A Supply Chains at Rabobank and an expert when it comes to packaging and logistics.

“Each type of packaging material – glass, plastic, paper, or metal – has different advantages and disadvantages,” Hansen explains. “Ultimately, every material affects the environment. Its effect is determined by the raw material used, production method, volume and weight during transport, and the recycling possibilities. And so the choice a manufacturer makes for a specific packaging material from the view point of sustainability depends on how they interpret sustainability.”

“The choice depends on your interpretation of sustainability”

- Susan Hansen, global strategist F&A Supply Chains Rabobank

Focus on waste, environment, or recycling?

“If sustainability means focusing on reducing food waste, glass and cans are the best options,” Hansen explains. “But if the aim is to have lower CO2 emissions from transport, cardboard and flexible plastic are ideal, because these are light and compact. And if the level of recyclability is important, plastic is the poorer choice compared to glass, cans, paper, and cardboard. As you can see, sustainability can be interpreted in different ways.”

Hansen gives two examples of packaging that extends the shelf life of fresh produce and reduces waste as a consequence – tomatoes and cucumbers. “Tomatoes packaged in plastic boxes can be kept for up to two weeks longer than unpackaged tomatoes. Tomatoes which have been processed into other products and which are then packed in cans or glass even have a shelf life of several years. The thin plastic film in which cucumbers are wrapped extends their shelf life by almost two weeks. Unpackaged cucumbers can only be stored for two to three days.

Glass: 100% recyclable

Glass is traditionally used for packaging, but its production costs a lot of energy, according to Hansen. “In addition, glass is a heavy material which takes up much more transport volume than light, plastic packaging. More lorries mean more fuel consumption, an increase in CO2 emissions, and higher transport costs. But glass can be 100% recycled into eternity. And, food packaged in glass has a much longer shelf life than when it is packaged in plastic. Besides, consumers have more appreciation for glass than for plastic. And of course, we are accustomed to returning glass to the bottle bank.”

Hansen concludes that there is not one material which is the most suitable or the best. To better understand the pros and cons when choosing packaging, see our infographic which depicts the advantages and disadvantages of each material against other factors that could weigh in the decision.