According to a 2020 McKinsey & Company survey about sustainability in packaging, 55% of U.S respondents said that they are extremely or very concerned about the environmental impact of product packaging and 60-70 percent of consumers said they would pay more for sustainable packaging. With a market that is ready for change, America's largest packaged foods companies have announced ambitious commitments to make 100% of their packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.
While these commitments are progress toward a more sustainable packaged foods market, early adopters like ConAgra and Nestlé have had to overcome several underlying obstacles of how they will make good on their promises. Identifying packaging equipment that operates efficiently at current production rates without compromising the integrity of new, eco-friendly packages can be a challenge.
In this post, we'll take a closer look at what's driving demand for sustainable packaging solutions and examine how some CPGs, material suppliers, and equipment manufacturers are partnering to bring fiber-based bowls to market at scale.
Millennials Demand Change
Among the growing number of consumers who are pushing CPGs for sustainable change, millennials have been the most adamant. In a recent interview with ConAgra CEO Sean Connolly, Mad Money host Jim Cramer asked Connolly about the decision to change ConAgra's entire Healthy Choice Power Bowls® product line to satisfy what Cramer called a huge, cash-strapped group of consumers.
"It's the first generation that is making less money than their parents, so we've got to give them a super convenient solution, but we can't compromise on the quality of the food," Connolly said. "So, we've taken a dusty old frozen business, we've infused it with modern attributes, and we've got it growing again, driven by millennials."
An early milestone on ConAgra’s 2025 sustainability journey, the conversion of the Healthy Choice Power Bowls® line from plastic bowls to biodegradable fiber-based bowls has debunked an industry misconception that fiber-based packaging is not automation friendly.
The Switch from Plastic to Fiber
While the food industry continues to debate the merits PET, PP and other recyclable plastics; consumers have welcomed plant-based fiber bowls as an improvement over single-use plastic bowls. Companies like Footprint, an American material science company, are partnering with BW Integrated Systems' Streamfeeder team to make it possible for food manufacturers to use plant-based fiber bowls in their high-volume product lines.
"Footprint is a material science company focused on making a healthier planet and healthier people through the elimination of single-use and short-term plastics in our first phase," said Footprint co-founder and CEO Troy Swope. "By offering solutions that perform like plastic without the harmful ingredients in plastic, we make it easy for food companies to adopt plant-based solutions and help to preserve our future."
But implementing these natural packaging solutions into established, high-volume product lines cannot happen instantaneously. It requires working with both the container and the packaging machinery supplier to fine-tune the settings. However, once the equipment has been tuned to run the new containers, packers can achieve the same throughput speeds according to Footprint VP of Sales Jeff Bassett.
"Since it's a natural product, it's inherently different from plastics," Bassett said. "As we design the plant-based fiber part, Footprint has to pay more attention to what the atmosphere is in the production facility that could impact production speed or quality." Footprint then engineers a solution for the environment, product success criteria and equipment processing requirements.
Furthermore, validating this solution at scale requires a complete understanding of, not only the specific product and package, but also the packaging equipment. For Footprint, this meant partnering with the Streamfeeder, which specializes in the design and manufacture of innovative automation solutions.
"The modifications that needed to be made to the equipment were a challenge," Bassett said. "By partnering with Streamfeeder, Footprint has gained the necessary insights to build materials that work with existing machines at the correct production rates that food manufacturers look for."
How to Automate Denesting of Fiber Bowls
From an equipment standpoint, screw denester machines are widely used to separate plastic trays and bowls in the frozen food market. However, fiber bowls don't fare well with these machines. This is partially because, while the spacing between plastic bowls in a stack is consistent and predictable, the spacing between fiber bowls is less predictable. This can cause inaccurate bowl denesting, damaged bowls, and ultimately delays to production for food manufacturers.
With pick-and-place denesters, this is not an issue. For example, the following video demonstrates how Streamfeeder's pick-and-place machine is used to automatically denest Footprint's fiber-based bowls for a well-known American packaged foods company.
Streamfeeder, a Barry-Wehmiller Packaging Systems brand, has a deep history and knowledge of pick-and-place technology. This is what makes their product advantageous over other similar products, according to Streamfeeder's National Sales Manager Doug Schulz.
"Ed Thiele, founder of Thiele Technologies, which was acquired by BW Packaging Systems, was the grandfather of pick-and-place technology," Schulz said. "At one time, he held virtually every patent on it. Because Streamfeeder has such a diverse background of experience on this topic, we can match the customer’s product to an existing solution and make modifications so that they truly can automate the process for that product."
Streamfeeder has drawn on its years of experience to develop material controls specifically designed to work with difficult products such as paper pulp products. This technology makes it possible for food packaging companies, that have traditionally used plastics, to transition to the new environmentally friendly products.
As consumer appetite for eco-friendly products grows across the US, environmentally conscious brands will continue to claim more shelf space at the supermarket. Brand owners who hope to be a part of this trend need to strike partnerships with suppliers that are committed to innovating, testing, and scaling sustainable packaging solutions, like the one above by Streamfeeder and Footprint.
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