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04/21/2021

Packaging Report: Store Brands Set Sustainability Standard

In this in-depth feature from the April issue, see how retailers are using their store brand packaging to lead the way in sustainability.
Dan Ochwat
Executive Editor
Dan Ochwat profile picture

Retailer store brands are striving to become leaders in sustainable packaging, and it is driving the packaging industry.

By 2025, both Ahold and Aldi will make 100% of its private brand packaging recyclable, compostable or reusable. Kroger pledged to do the same by 2030. Walmart, Albertsons and others have set comparable packaging goals.

“While packaging that is convenient, easy to open, and keeps the product safe from tampering and damage will continue to be important, environmental concerns are affecting consumer choices, and packaging that is recyclable or reusable is growing in importance,” said Bob Tupta, marketing product manager at Mold-Rite Plastics.

To tackle sustainability, packaging suppliers and private label manufacturers are stepping up in various ways — from creating reusable containers like the Loop platform from TerraCycle to leveraging post-consumer content and renewable bio-based resins in packaging, as well as deploying more flexible pouches or bags as opposed to rigid packages.

flexible packaging pouches

“Even in the throes of this pandemic, sustainability continues to drive packaging,” said Sal Pellingra, vice president, global application and innovation, ProAmpac in Cincinnati, who added that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its underlying vision of a circular economy is helping companies to strategize and develop eco-friendly packaging.

Mold-Rite is a signee of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its Global Commitment pact, joining some of the world’s biggest consumer goods companies, government agencies and more out to reduce plastic pollution globally. 

However, Leo Brozell, director of product innovation at Chicago-based Mold-Rite, said there are   significant challenges ahead, and that adapting will require an understanding of what it means to be fully sustainable throughout the entire life cycle of a package.

“With regard to alternate materials to achieve the goal, often there are supply issues, functional issues, and regulatory issues,” he said. “There is plenty of confusion, lack of standardization and claims around these materials that need to be validated for use. Meeting these goals is also going to require a fundamental reworking of how we currently deal with the end of life of packaging — recycling, composting, reuse, etc. Mandating that percentages of recycled content be used is noble for the sustainability effort, but there aren’t yet sufficient avenues to collect and recycle the plastic and supply it in a way that is required by FDA and current packaging specifications.”

Pellingra at ProAmpac agreed that it’s difficult to know how realistic it is for retailers to reach its laudable packaging goals. “Most important will be having infrastructure available for handling a wide range of materials, the ability to pay for both infrastructure and the costs for managing it,” he said. “Glass, for instance, isn’t being recycled in many municipalities because of the high cost to collect, transport and recycle it. This same issue is being experienced with other material solutions."

He also noted that in Europe, packaging that uses post-consumer recycled material/recycled resin, or PCR, hasn’t been approved for many food applications. 

“Meeting those big goals isn’t a single solution; it’s a holistic approach by suppliers, brands, retailers, and local and national governments,” he said. “For its part, the industry is making inroads towards these goals every day. Getting there will require continued development and cooperation from everyone in the supply chain — raw material sources, converters, processors, retailers, materials recovery facilities, the right legislation and most importantly, improved education of and communication with consumers."

Sidebar: What CVS Wants

Brenda Lord, vice president of private brands and quality assurance at CVS Health told Store Brands that the retailer is looking to packaging as a way to innovate its store brands.

Two examples of where they’re looking: continuous spray bottles for products that otherwise would have messy applications, and packages with pre-measured dosages of OTC remedies to make it easier for customers to take the right amount.

Lord said the retailer sees great possibility in reusable packaging, too, and has been working with manufacturer partners to present reusable packaging options and “to push the envelope for all of our store brand product lines to explore additional steps we can take towards achieving even more sustainable packaging goals.”

“As a company dedicated to improving people’s lives through innovative and high-quality health offerings, we are continuously working to reduce our environmental and climate-related impact across all areas of business,” she said. “Across our store brands portfolio, we are working to minimize while giving customers information to make smart product decisions and committed to providing customers with accessible and affordable options.”

Sustainable Solutions
The key to developing a more sustainable package comes down to developing a smaller package (using less material that makes the item cheaper to ship) and using materials that support the circular economy.

The Loop platform from TerraCycle has been a leading example of the reuse application and is growing in the private brand space. The platform last fall hit a milestone by making its platform available in every zip code across the 48 contiguous states and this year it launched reusable President’s Choice packaging for Canadian retailer Loblaw.

The service likens itself to the days of the milkman. Shoppers in Canada, for example, select a President’s Choice jar of salsa online (in-store service will be available soon). The jar is a reusable package designed by Loop and Loblaw that gets returned by the shopper (shipped back in a package provided by Loop) to be refilled and mailed back to the shopper. 

Kroger and Walgreens are using Loop for its own brands in the United States, and Loop has partnered with select Carrefour stores in France. Additionally, the platform will be launching in Japan with Aeon and in Australia with Woolworth’s later this year.

“I think it’s great that retailers are setting big goals and this will put pressure on brands being carried at their stores to adapt with the current consumer trend of delivering goods in sustainable packaging,” said Charlotte Maiden, publicist for the platform. “I think this will be even more successful if retailers start these steps with their own private label brands.”

Outside of Loop, Trenton, N.J.-based TerraCycle hit a milestone last summer by launching the first-ever recycling program dedicated to a store brand product, teaming with Kroger for the SimpleTruth Recycling Program — which centers on flexible packaging that is not accepted in the curbside bin, including produce bags, bread bags and plastic overwrap found on items like tissue boxes and bottled water.

After a shopper signs up on the TerraCycle website, once they purchase one of the more than 300 eligible Simple Truth products, they are able to ship empty packages to TerraCycle to be recycled using a free, prepaid shipping label. 

“Local governments are often faced with the ever-increasing challenges and expenses of managing hard-to-recycle materials. When [retailers] step up to take the lead on recycling efforts, they alleviate the pressure from local governments, bolster the recycling system as a whole, and support the recovery of their products’ packaging on a national scale,” TerraCycle representatives said.

Other examples of companies rolling out sustainable packaging solutions include Smile Beverage Werks, which has introduced commercially sustainable compostable coffee pods that can be used for retailer private brands. The Darien, Conn.-based company’s pods are made from renewable plant-based materials, making them commercially compostable, and the product carries a full-year shelf life.

Eco Lips,  a large independent organic lip balm manufacturer, has developed what it says is the first environmentally sustainable lip balm tube that is made entirely from plants and is 100% free of plastics. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based company said the tube feels and functions like a plastic tube vessel. Eco Lips produces Fair Trade Certified lip care products using 100% renewable energy, producing products under its brand name as well as for private label and contract manufacturing.

“Even in the throes of this pandemic, sustainability continues to drive packaging."
Sal Pellingra , vice president, global application and innovation, ProAmpac
lemonade bottle

At Mold-Rite, a leader in plastic caps and closures for packaging, the company is employing PCR materials and designing lighter weight closures to reduce the weight and amount of material used. 

“While there is no magic material that is an adequate substitute for plastic, we continue to evaluate and investigate other sustainable resins, additives, and package concepts that may offer true eco-friendliness, such as starch and sugar-based bio-resins, biodegradable additives, and compostable resins,” Brozell said. “It is important to keep in mind that many non-plastic packaging options that are intended to be more sustainable, such as glass, aluminum, and paperboard, have some serious shortcomings in terms of impact on the environment, and might not be the most eco-friendly options when compared to plastic.”

ProAmpac, a leader in flexible packaging solutions, launched in February a frozen food sustainable pouch that uses a patent-pending film. The product, named ProActive Recyclable R-2000FT, falls under the company’s ProActive Sustainability family of products, which makes it prequalified for store drop-off recycling through polyethylene recycling streams.

pill bottles

E-commerce Friendly
Perhaps growing alongside the sustainability trend in packaging is the need for packaging that is durable enough, small enough and efficient for the rise of online shopping.

“While the pandemic did bring a surge of online shopping, we can expect that e-commerce will stay at similar levels of demand post-pandemic,” said Todd Meussling, Fresh-Lock senior manager, market development, Reynolds Presto Products, Appleton, Wis., and he said store brand packages need to be prepared to ship nontraditional items such as frozen meats, fresh produce and pharmaceuticals.

“Packaging must be specifically designed with distribution in mind, offering durable, puncture-resistant protection,” Meussling said, adding that flexible packaging offers the ability to flex and move during shipments as opposed to rigid tube and cardboard boxes.

With the importance of speed in e-commerce, Superior Pack Group is a single-source contract packaging company in Harriman, N.Y., that emphasizes speed to market, helping to design packages to meet the needs of e-commerce, and managing the planning and logistics to get it on shelves quickly.

“Customers are time constrained, so their shopping experience needs to be fast, easy, convenient, seamless, and safe, in stores or online,” Tupta of Mold-Rite said. He added that nearly a third of packages ordered online are returned due to damage or being a wrong item.

Tupta said packaging needs to be taken seriously for e-commerce because it is how the retailer is viewed by the customer. Packaging that is hard to open or unattractive can hurt the retailer, and most important, the packaging needs to be durable.

“While a typical product on a store shelf may be handled half a dozen times, a product in the e-commerce channel can be handled up to 30 times before a customer receives it,” he said. “In addition, retailers and manufacturers have to worry about conveyer belts, stacking/compression, roadway vibration, leaking product, and extreme temperatures and humidity.”

Lastly, as packaging looks to be more eco-friendly, it can also be used as a vessel to inform shoppers of the food inside. Jacob Foss, co-founder of Agricycle Global, Milwaukee, offers a way for retailers to put a traceability QR code on a store brand package to learn more about a product. For example, the company works with Jali Fruit, where a consumer can scan a dried fruit bag and it tells the story of the women-led cooperative members behind the product, battling poverty in parts of Africa. 

Albertsons similarly uses its packaging to call out that its Waterfront Bistro brand of seafood is responsibly sourced, and all of the private brand products from Ahold Delhaize USA have clear on-pack Bioengineered Food disclosure messaging.

CVS Pharmacy introduced its revamped Live Better by CVS Health line last year, committing 80% of the line to be in  recyclable packaging, and the packages themselves tell a story about how certain ingredients were sourced. The company also joined the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle program so all of its store brand packaging will have instructions on how to properly recycle them. The CVS Health Vitamins and Total Home have the labels and will begin shipping to stores by the end of the year. By 2025, all of the store brands in its portfolio will carry the How2Recycle information.