Packaging has a fundamental role in building sustainable, safe, and hygienic food systems globally. We believe that the value of packaging is more than its impact on the planet. But just as with all innovations, there are challenges to be dealt with.
Increased water scarcity is driving the need for better water preservation
Water, a limited yet critical resource for both natural ecosystems and human survival, is becoming increasingly scarce. Our increasing use of this natural element, which ranges from personal consumption to agricultural and industrial applications, has led to global water demand increasing at twice the rate of population growth over the past 100 years.i Whilst climate change is an important driver of geographic water shortages across the globe, an expanding population and rapid economic development have a more immediate impact on current water levels globally.
According to the EU’s Joint Research Center, approximately two-thirds of the world’s population – half of whom reside in India and China – experience severe water scarcity for at least one month per year. In Europe, more than 120 million citizens lack access to safe drinking water and half a billion people across the globe face critical shortages annually. In a study of 71 cities with more than 750,000 inhabitants, it is estimated that 35 per cent are vulnerable to water scarcity at present.ii
Moving beyond assumptions on single-use packaging
Addressing significant environmental challenges such as climate change and water shortages is of utmost importance. We believe there is a need for fact-based dialogues on the types of activities that contribute to environmental impacts and how these can be minimized effectively and swiftly. For example, a TÜV certified Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) carried out by Ramboll, the independent global consultancy based in Denmark, found that during the course of a year the washing and drying of reusables, whether in-store or at a central facility, consumed so much energy that using single-use paper dishes for the same period of time resulted in a smaller carbon footprint. In addition, the sanitization process consumed significant amounts of freshwater.
The environmental impacts of energy and water required to clean multi-use products demonstrate that disposable packaging can be an environmentally better solution within the food service industry, especially if it is made of fiber sources from sustainably managed forests. According to Ramboll’s LCA – which quantifies the environmental impacts of different tableware systems used in quick service restaurants for meals consumed in store – polypropylene-based multi-use tableware generated 2.7 times more CO2 emissions than its paper-based single-use counterpart. In addition, it produced 2.3 times more fine particulate matter, increased fossil depletion by 3.3 times, and raised terrestrial acidification by 1.7 times. Notably, in this baseline scenario the plastic-based multi-use product system also used 3.6 times the amount of freshwater than single-use products.
In addition to water use, the carbon footprint of packaging is another area that is often misunderstood. For example, another LCA conducted by the German-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (ifeu) showed how resource efficient lightweight flexible packaging is. When comparing the environmental impacts of different types of packaging for pasta sauces and olives in the European market, flexible packaging was found to be the better alternative compared to traditional materials such as glass jars and steel cans. This was due to less energy required in production and transport, ultimately leading to fewer carbon emissions.iii
Our commitment to continually improving single-use packaging
Huhtamaki is committed to innovation and having more than 80% of its raw materials be either renewable or recycled by 2030. Today, approximately 70 percent are renewable and 98 percent of all fibers are either recycled or derived from sustainably managed sources.iv To guarantee food safety and hygiene, our paper cups are made of high-quality renewable virgin fiber, grown in European sustainably managed forests. To make full use of the fibers, used paper cups should be recycled, and in fact the fibers can be recycled up to seven times and made into other paper products before they lose their strength. Importantly, recycling paper products drives lower greenhouse gas emissions. When a paper cup is recycled, the carbon footprint falls by a significant 54 percent. If a traditional paper cup is swapped for Huhtamaki’s FutureSmart paper cup with a renewable bio-based coating, which is also recycled, the footprint falls by 64 percent.
Our double-wall Impresso paper cup is another example of innovative product design. The bubbles on the cup’s surface improve the insulation of the cup by reducing surface heat to the user’s touch, whilst also creating a structurally stiffer cup that requires thinner paperboard in the inner layer – thereby reducing material use.v When it comes to flexible packaging, environmental benefits are achieved with the design of packaging that minimizes the use of all materials. A remarkably low packaging-to-product ratio – up to 5 to 10 times lower than with alternative materials – means a larger quantity of actual product can be transported at a time, leading to a reduced systemwide environmental footprint.vi
The future begins with collaboration
In order to make environmentally viable decisions, it is imperative to establish scientific evidence on the true impacts throughout the full life-cycle of existing alternatives, and thereby provide crucial data for conversations around food packaging, climate and better regulation. We should recognize that we need to move into the future and not rely on conventional choices which are not always the best when it comes to climate impact, freshwater use, or other environmental categories. Moreover, it is paramount that policy decisions adopted today take into account both carbon emissions and freshwater consumption, and that all industries and sectors review how they can reduce their impacts.