From communicating transparency around environmental claims to using advanced technologies to improve sustainability, the dairy industry is focused on responsible practices in the development of packaging.

The scope of this responsibility includes developing innovations that support multiple initiatives, including reducing food waste and promoting recycling.

Advancing sustainability

Dairy brands often present their packaging as eco-friendly and leading in environmental responsibility, but proving these claims will be critical for the industry, said Jorge Izquierdo, vice president of market development for the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI), Herndon, Va.

“Make sure those attributes are not just empty claims, but true, and that means everything from where they are sourcing the products to the ingredients and packaging recyclability,” Izquierdo said.

As such, the use of on-pack carbon reduction claims and measurements of sustainability, including carbon footprint reporting, are growing. Information regarding third-party certifications, recycling information and product origination data are also important, according to data from Mintel-Tetra Pak’s 2023 Packaging Trends webinar.

The demand for shelf-stable products is only increasing, and that has led to the use of more modified atmosphere packaging and innovation in aseptic technologies.

“On the end-user side, they want to see technologies that extend shelf-life that have the convenience but without all the additives and preservatives,” Izquierdo said.

The industry is also seeing a movement toward the use of high-density polyethylene and more recyclable content in packaging products, but this focus on recyclability often comes into conflict with other industry trends, Izquierdo said. As an example, many dairy brands are gravitating toward more flexible packaging that requires fewer overall materials, but these packages are often not as easy to recycle. Additionally, in many instances sophisticated laminations are being used that offer extended shelf life, but it can be a challenge moving from these formats to using mono materials that are easier to recycle.

“There are good opportunities for high-density polyethylene rigid packaging in the dairy industry,” Izquierdo said. “It’s relatively easy to separate and reprocess.”

Producing recyclable packaging materials at scale can also be a challenge. Packaging lines are optimized to run with traditional materials at high speed, and Izquierdo said lines must often slow down when they switch to different types of materials out of concern for maintaining the integrity of the products. This means many companies need to modify their lines or invest in new packaging equipment.

“In many cases, (companies are) doing retrofits just to be able to work with different materials and hopefully keep those machines running as fast as possible and as productive as possible,” Izquierdo said.

Overall, this is creating a need for product manufacturers to work closer with original equipment manufacturers and material manufacturers.

“The expectation is that OEMs and materials manufacturers can work ahead and share their experience on the best ways to implement new materials in operations and hopefully shorten the time required to optimize alignment,” Izquierdo said.

Given the overall inflationary environment, reducing the cost of recyclable materials is also of key importance. Collecting large volumes of recyclable materials and creating an economy that incentivizes recycling will be one of the most effective ways to bring down the cost.

“The majority of consumers are still relying heavily on the brands and retailers to provide a sustainable solution without passing the burden cost to them,” said Kim Detrick, marketing manager for dairy and food specialty containers with Amcor Rigid Packaging. “It continues to improve as more education, regulations and adaptions to new processes and commitments are provided and adhered in the consumers’ daily lives.”

Amcor shredded cheese packaging dairy products manufacturingImage: Amcor

Working with brands, retailers and recyclers across industries to see if it will be feasible to test product residue with the goal of determining if a package can be classified as “clean and dry” and eligible for a store drop-off label is another initiative for Amcor, said Travis Klug, dairy marketing manager at Amcor Flexibles North America. Achieving this distinction is currently difficult for cheese packaging.

Amcor is also partnering with global and regional groups to accelerate the growth of recycling infrastructure. To this end, the company’s recycling partnerships involve collaboration with communities and recycling facilities, including material recovery facilities, processors, and secondary processors to improve opportunities, Klug said.


Next generation of packaging

A range of new packaging products have been developed to advance shelf-life and sustainability, and they also set the stage for future innovations.

ProAmpac’s ProActive Recyclable R-400 is a product especially designed for cheeses, and the ProActive Recyclable RP-1000 is a fiber-based packaging alternative.

“These options not only prioritize sustainability but also effectively cater to consumer preferences,” said Ali McNulty, ProAmpac’s market manager for Europe. “In our commitment to environmental responsibility, we incorporate recycled materials into our PET and PE components, reducing our ecological footprint.”

Overall, advanced packaging technologies in the industry are helping extend shelf life, enhance supply chain transparency and foster more communication between brands and consumers, McNulty said.

“The latest sustainable dairy packaging trends include mono-material PP and PE solutions, PCR content, compostable materials, material reduction and recycling improvements,” McNulty said. “These options are made practical and affordable through economies of scale, market demand and technological advancements, encouraging widespread adoption in the dairy industry.”

Amcor’s 40-lb block tubestock is designed to keep products protected while delivering material and labor savings, less down time and reduced environmental impact. The company is also working on a solution to take that tubestock film and develop pre-made pouches, which will also deliver material savings and improved sustainability for cheese processors that are unable to produce bags in line using tubestock.

The company’s ICE XP coextruded forming films are designed for efficiency in production, especially in applications with mozzarella balls and loaves. The innovative films allow for downgauging from heavier films while still maintaining performance.

Amcor’s ClearCor technology reduces the amount of barrier used in a bottle while allowing post-consumer recycled content to be included, and the company has also introduced a new lightweighting technology called Quantum.

Tetra Pak aseptic packaging beverage dairy sustainability labelPhoto: Tetra Pak

Tetra Pak is turning to the processing and packaging of ultra-high temperature milk to help provide a sustainable product with an extended shelf life that also reduces food waste and improves efficiency.

Consumers are increasingly changing their perception that fresh dairy products must be refrigerated, and Detrick said this gives the opportunity for the development of more ambient products and packaging.

“As this continues to change and evolve, the ability to introduce and change the overall product profile allows more flexibility across the entire workflow of the supply chain from farm to table,” Detrick said.

Manufacturers of dairy products are often preparing products for different types of retailers, from convenience to grocery and club stores, so they need to be able to provide flexibility in primary and secondary packaging, Izquierdo said. Robotics is adding to this flexibility, allowing the same machine to pack products in different sizes and formats.

ProAmpac is also exploring products that incorporate post-consumer recycled content and bio-based materials.

“Our packaging options are tailored to specific applications, considering criteria such as flex and abrasion tests, as well as compatibility with filling lines,” McNulty said.


Key responsibility

Using more fiber-based and paper-based materials will be a focus going forward, and Izquierdo said fiber-based closures are becoming more common. While these packaging products might have fewer uses in fluid applications, the opportunities in cheese will continue to expand.

The global cheese packaging market is projected to grow to $5.3 billion by the year 2029, according to Future Market Insights.

Growing e-commerce for cheese products will require innovation to support such products with features such as abuse resistance and alternative packaging, Klug said.

Additionally, advanced filling and supply chain practices and the use of low-acid aseptic filling processes and lightweighting to reach carbon neutrality goals will also be key, according to Detrick.

Tetra Pak is working to produce a carbon-neutral food package made entirely from responsibly sourced renewable or recyclable materials, and the development of such products will be critical to meeting needs going forward.