Fiber Packaging and Food Safety
Where the Opportunities Are for Brands Today
By Paivi Harju-Eloranta, director of product stewardship for Stora Enso Packaging Materials
Packaging has always played a vital role in food safety. Safe food packaging builds brand trust with consumers by reducing the risk of contamination of food, by extending shelf life, by enabling traceability, and much more. Fiber-based packaging — from the paperboard cereal box to the corrugated fruit crate to the aseptic juice carton — has long been a familiar and reliable material choice.
Today, demand for fiber-based packaging is stronger than ever, driven in part by two key trends: industry innovation (in both materials and design) and the sustainability movement. Both evolved significantly since the rise of COVID-19, when demand for takeout and home delivery exploded, accelerating innovation.
The pandemic also sparked debate on social issues, furthering consumer awareness of the need for environmental responsibility in packaging. In May 2022, our company surveyed 7,000 U.S. consumers across nine states and found broad support for greater sustainability, with 58% of all respondents preferring sustainable brands and 50% willing to pay more to get them. One out of four consumers say they have chosen not to order food again from a restaurant because of too much plastic used in the packaging.
Food safety & sustainability go together
This convergence is not completely new. Safety and sustainability are intrinsically linked. Packaging that enhances food safety results in less packaging waste and less food waste.
Reducing packaging waste is a straightforward benefit. When food and its packaging last longer, fewer packaging materials and food need to be thrown out and replaced. Reducing food waste is a double win. It reduces the need for more food production and slashes emissions from decaying food.
When fibers are used in packaging, it further reduces environmental impact. Why? Because growing trees bind carbon and thus benefit the climate as opposed to production and usage of fossil based materials. Fiber-based packaging materials are readily recyclable with other fiber-based materials.
Innovating with fiber across the packaging life cycle
At each stage in the packaging process – from ideation to production to use to disposal – brand owners who use fiber-based packaging can find new ways to advance food safety and sustainability.
Before anything else, consider all of the possible need for barriers, and all of the factors impacting the best choice for packaging materials, including:
- End use
- Type of packed food (moist, fatty, dry, etc.)
- Desired storage time and shelf life
- End-use conditions and storage temperature
While liquids and dairy products are especially challenging for food safety and hygiene, fiber-based materials can meet these needs, while also delivering sustainable benefits. Beverage cartons can replace plastic bottles and paperboard trays can replace foam trays for meat, fish and cheese, allowing for food safety and the needed protection. Our survey of U.S. consumers found that they prefer paperboard-based packaging, especially in cereals, frozen food and ready-made meals.
“Right sizing” package design
Right sizing the packaging will help avoid excess materials as well as needless food waste, and smart design minimizes packaging volume and waste. Material choices are an integral part of designing packaging that avoids package failure, which can lead to contamination, spoilage, leaks and damage. Today’s advanced fiber-based materials are often stronger but lighter, allowing brand owners to use less packaging weight or volume.
Fibers can help reduce the percentage of plastics in food packaging, too. In a life cycle assessment study, food company Fazer reduced plastic by more than half from its Yosa 200 oat snacks packaging by using a paperboard cup. The same study showed that the fiber material also had 56% less CO2 emissions throughout its life cycle. Since 59% of U.S. consumers in our study said that buying food packed in paperboard is a way to contribute to environmental sustainability, the choice also reflects positively on brands that can integrate it into their designs.
Whenever materials are used in food contact, they need to be tested and approved for the intended end-use conditions. Responsible fiber materials providers should be able to provide full traceability of all materials. Wood offers full traceability and can be grown and harvested according to recognized forest management standards. Recycled fiber is a fit in many packaging end-uses, and could offer circularity. When full traceability of all component ingredients is required, only fresh fiber will do. Each has their advantages and optimal uses.
With research and development continually pushing the capabilities of fiber-based materials, brand owners may have better and more cost-effective choices than they realize. One core innovation area is new barriers that make fiber materials work in various end-uses and protect the food even better. Fiber-based materials providers can be part of the education, ensuring companies are aware of all possible choices.
Keeping up with commercial viability is important. As is typical of all innovation, costs come down over time and as technology advances. Scientists and designers continue to push the envelope to make safety and sustainability and smart business choices all come together.
Safe and sustainable every step of the way
In choosing materials, brand owners should aim to work with providers who can ensure hygiene and product safety throughout materials manufacturing.
Recyclability matters most when materials are actually recycled. In fact, a survey we commissioned in 2023 found that U.S. consumers expect brand owners to do more to make recycling easier for them; 61% of consumers said brand owners are not doing enough to make it easy for consumers to recycle packaging material.
Brand owners should be able to look to materials providers to increase the circularity of packaging after use. Fiber-based materials can be recycled together with other fiber-based materials. Recycling and recovery of used fiber-based packages and fiber/non-fiber combination packaging depend on local collection and recovery schemes.
By working with partners who can help with package design and maximize the best (safe and cost effective) use of fiber-based solutions for their needs, brand owners can make a real difference. They can not only provide safe food that reduces waste, but promote recycling and give consumers the sustainable impact they want.
About the Author
Paivi Harju-Eloranta is a distinguished chemist and global leader in food safety management systems, including packaging and packaging waste and food safety policy. As director of product stewardship for Stora Enso Packaging Materials, she guides development of packaging solutions that drive safety and sustainability for consumers, brand owners and the planet. To download the Stora Enso report, visit: https://info.storaenso.com/pm/us-consumer-insights-na.