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Supermarket News February feature: Packaging innovation, PFAS and paper straws

Supermarket News February feature: Packaging innovation, PFAS and paper straws


Last month, excerpts from our recent interview were featured in Supermarket News Magazine, discussing packaging design and labelling. Sustainability has been a driver of innovation in packaging design, and where we need to start if we are to reduce waste and minimise environmental harm.

The article also highlights how perceptions of food safety can be conveyed through materials, which is why Supermarket News initially approached us, as our straws use food-grade glue and soy-based inks, certified compostable under OK compost INDUSTRIAL (EN 13432) and home composting under OK compost HOME, certifications which impose restrictions on harmful additives. 

Here, we discuss the challenges of PET plastics,  per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and the future—new obligations, industries and knowledge requirements that will arise for out-of-home spaces. 

You can read the full interview below.

Paper straws present a need for the upcoming government regulation of PFAS in makeup to extend to a broader range of consumer products.

Many people are unaware of how straw paper fibres are held together and how their resistance to liquid is achieved. Many of these glues and adhesives will have per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) added.

The article also speaks to end-of-life communications on packaging, which is highly relevant considering recent changes to recycling. Consider a food product packaged with Low-Density Polyethylene (#4). That company is now required to remove the chasing arrows symbol as this material is no longer considered recyclable in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Access the February issue online. You’ll find the feature article on pages 33 and 34.

How do we minimise environmental harm and human health impacts?

In your opinion, how can packaging and design grow and capture consumer engagement? 

Packaging design can be used to create engaging narratives. It is a tool for storytelling. The climate emergency created opportunities for alternative biomaterials, discarded seafood shells, corn (even discarded cobs), fungi, algae and food waste, yet many of these materials still need to be better understood by the public. We are seeing industries focus on their role in resource use and waste generation, but to reduce waste, we need to design packaging for human behaviour. 

You cannot control what people will do with packaging once it leaves your premises, but you can influence those actions by factoring behavioural psychology into packaging design. For example, where space allows, communicating the material origin, its production and potential transformation (whether that is composting, recycling or biodegradation in landfill) to first help people learn about biomaterials and then provide a trigger for people to remind them how to compost or recycle. 

What role have you observed sustainability plays in packaging innovations and consumers' purchasing decisions? 

Many of us are disappointed at where we are regarding recycling rates and plastic pollution. Our consumers are businesses looking to tackle the issues of single-use plastics, so they are encouraging reuse and using compostable packaging. For companies with a deep commitment to protecting our land, these business owners are investing in compost collections, diverting food scraps and certified compostable packaging from landfill, and the ability to tell that story does influence buyer decisions. That said, the motivation is much higher for large enterprises with Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting obligations.

Your paper straws are made with food-grade glue and soy-based inks. What drove this choice? 

Human health. When plastic straws were banned last July, that was one less petrochemical product was removed from our eateries fast food joints and so on. And people naturally shifted to paper. Few places will invest in reusable straws, and there is a perception that paper is safe, but many people do not realise how those fibres are held together and how their resistance to liquid is achieved. Many of these glues and adhesives will have per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) added. 

Some 15,000 PFAS chemicals are known, and studies have linked these chemicals to cancer, reproductive issues, endocrine disruption, and various health effects. PFASs and their alternatives are used as a barrier or repellent against grease and water to keep migration to acceptable levels during transport and shelf-life/food consumption. There are alternatives.

With paper products, the fibres can act as a physical barrier when they are very fine and cross-bonded. Most PFAS chemicals have alternatives. For human health and the environment, we need to identify and regulate these chemicals. They are in our water supply. Canada is regulating these substances through the Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations (2012). Denmark enacted legislation to remove all PFAS from paper and board packaging, increasing awareness. Here, the government is regulating PFAS in makeup, so why not extend this to a much broader range of consumer products?

Are there missed market opportunities you believe brands and businesses could leverage to ensure eco-friendliness and safety with packaging? 

Communicating materials and their role in food safety and environmental protection. Businesses rarely talk about their compostable packaging because of the potential for comments, which are really an opportunity to engage and educate people. But the majority of owner-operator businesses are not going to be well enough versed to respond. 

When you look at the language used in communicating plastics, you will find words like ‘safer’. Plastics grade 1, 2 and 5 are considered ‘safe’ for example. Of course, they are not, but the industry wants you to think they are. The Ministry for the Environment is encouraging these plastics over compostable products, many of which are paper board, but there still persists this idea that these accepted plastic grades are safe and recyclable and therefore better.

For example, when a sushi franchise switched to PET plastic, the majority of comments were positive, but what people need to understand is these plastics contain PFAS. And if these plastics are made from post-consumer plastic waste and contain a recycled component, recent Greenpeace research tells us these recycled plastics can contain more harmful chemicals. We need to hold space for conversations around materials and their environmental and human health impacts.

What are some key trends in packaging and design right now? How has this changed over the years, and what styles and trends do you anticipate will lead in 2024? What will stay the same?

The biomaterials space is exciting. This year, we will see continued material innovation as demand for lower-impact products remains a focus driven by increasingly educated customers in addition to (hopefully) further regulations: that and sustainable accreditations for these products, which is necessary with a heightened public awareness of greenwashing claims. 

Embracing aesthetic irregularity. People complain that birchwood cutlery is not as smooth as bioplastic (or petrochemical plastic if that was used previously). Still, there is a greater understanding that achieving such attributes requires certain resources and will create unnecessary waste. 

Products used in the takeaway environments have not changed immensely—not in terms of design (functionality) but more in materiality. I expect product design to remain familiar, but the materials and aesthetics will change. 

Can you share any challenges that arise when it comes to sustainable packaging and labelling? What steps are you taking to overcome these? 

Lack of transparency and regulation. Increasingly informed customers, together with (hopefully) heightened regulations, will demand greater transparency around material origins, seeking justification for their use, and assurances around end-of-life. Over the past two years, we have updated our language, product descriptions, and online communications to speak directly to our materials, our product certifications and their end-of-life potential. 

Recent changes to recycling collections in Aotearoa will see chasing arrows removed from packaging where these materials are no longer accepted in curbside collections and no viable end-of-life solution. These products now can no longer claim to be recyclable. Yoghurt pottles, for example. Greater literacy by brand markets around language and claims will become a requirement.

Anything else you'd like to add? 

An essential part of circularity is planning for what happens when a packaging product has left the supermarket shelf or takeaway franchise—when it is out there in the world. With such intent focus on waste and the climate emergency, drastic changes are required. The reality is the vast majority of customers are not demanding reuse or alternatives to plastic, like compostable packaging. In particular, businesses have little incentive to do better where these alternatives cost more (because plastic is so cheap). 

Add to this the lacklustre governmental approach to waste reform, compliance for office buildings, private venues and restaurants, etc. These out-of-home spaces represent a significant proportion of waste to landfill in a properly functioning circular economy. If we look from the perspective of materials innovation, materials (re)usage and materials reclamation, I can foresee (at least overseas) new obligations, new industries and new knowledge requirements. The opportunities to work on game-changing solutions to some of our waste challenges are immense. Our partners have that long-term vision. We welcome others to join us.