How certified organic and sustainable food and beverage brands go ‘Beyond Organic’ to meet consumer expectations about the packaging of their products is an interesting dilemma for food and beverage companies, says Victor Bell, president of Environmental Packaging International (EPI),  based in Rhode Island, USA.

Founded in 1998, EPI is a consultancy specializing in environmental compliance, product stewardship, and sustainability issues related to packaging and products. The firm works with some of the world’s largest brands such as Mars, Starbucks and Kraft Foods in the US, UK, Australia and other countries. It also works with organic brands.

Brands should look at what they can do in terms of making their packaging more sustainable: could the packaging be designed to be highly recyclable; could it use recycled content; does it reduce the overall packaging content; does it improve the carbon footprint; and can you use a bio-based material such as plant material for a beverage bottle, Mr Bell says.

Other attributes to look for when evaluating which packaging to use and why can also include recyclability in the paper or cardboard and whether such materials were sourced from a sustainable, certified forest product, such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).

Another area Mr Bell has been working on recently is with brands that have moved to stand up pouch packaging instead of using glass bottles, such as in organic baby food, dressings and sauces.

“Pouch packaging is often not recyclable, but it could reduce the carbon footprint, due to the reduced weight of the packaging materials used,” he says. “When comparing a 120g glass container to a 30g PET bottle or 6g pouch packaging, you also have to look at the overall impacts of manufacture, transportation, and disposal. Several of the pouch’s environmental impacts, calculated over its lifecycle, are lower as such as package is 1/20th the weight of the glass container and 1/5th the weight of the PET bottle.”

“This does not mean that companies using pouches should not work to make their pouches recyclable; pouches are also a litter and marine debris issue that must be addressed.”

Mr Bell points out that there is a perception by some food and beverage companies that sustainable packaging means you have to use biodegradable materials, but these materials have many problems.

“Biodegradable packaging may not be a good option. These packaging systems will not degrade in a properly designed landfill, and if they do, they generate a greenhouse gas, methane. The US authorities fined some companies for claiming that their packaging that contained additives would degrade,” he says. “There’s a big difference between a compostable packaging that is designed to be compostable with food waste for instance, and biodegradable packaging.”

Another issue is that environmental labelling or environmental claims requirements can differ from country to country. Mr. Bell says organic and sustainable brands should aim to provide enough information to the consumer on packaging labels. Using appropriate and legal logos such as the FSC logo when the company has the correct certification or making correct recyclable claims are good first steps.

In the UK, the new recycle WRAP label and in the US a ‘How2recycle’ label that is part of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition provide excellent information to consumers on what parts of the packaging are recyclable.  When using paper packaging, it should have the maximum amount of recycled content or be made from sustainably harvested wood as certified by a group such as FSC, Mr. Bell adds.

For bio-based plastic bottles use a plant-based PET bottle or HDPE rather than resins, which are not commonly recycled along with bottles made with PLA material. “Look at the packaging design to use the least amount of adverse impacts on the environment, such as how do we ensure that the packaging design and combination of materials doesn’t negatively affect the recycling process,” he says. “Minimize the packaging and at the same time make sure that the packaging is designed to minimise food waste, one of the criteria for sustainable packaging.”

Mr Bell was a speaker at the North American edition of the Sustainable Foods Summit hosted in San Francisco on 20-22 January 2016. The event was part of a series of Summits organized by UK-based market research firm Organic Monitor.