KANSAS CITY, MO -- When a consumer purchases Trader Joe’s Mango and Cream Bars, they might notice the packaging is made of 80% recycled content. While such packaging is still relatively unique to the market, with sustainability driving the industry there will undoubtedly be more use of recycled content in dairy packaging in the future.

Increasing recyclability 

This push toward sustainability can be seen in both frozen and refrigerated dairy applications.

“The overriding trend we are seeing is the search for more sustainable packaging solutions,” said Darin Gregg, market director for dairy at Winpak, Winnipeg, Manitoba. “We believe there is alignment across the entire retail and institutional dairy product supply chain to achieve this.”

Sustainability can be a broad term encompassing various efforts, but Murray Bain, vice president of marketing at Stanpac, Smithville, Ont., said sustainability in frozen dairy packaging applications means consumers want to prevent their packaging from going to a landfill. He said they want their packaging to be able to be recycled, and in some cases composted.

To achieve this, Bain said their suppliers are innovating and developing solutions that will allow packaging to be recycled more easily. However, there is still work to be done to increase the actual amount of packaging that is recycled in the end. They are also working to reduce the amount of polyethylene they use in packaging and are add more post-consumer fiber.

“How much post-consumer material can you put into a package is another item dairy companies and consumers are interested in,” Bain said.

Bain said one method of producing more sustainable packaging materials is to reduce the amount of polyethylene by using a dispersion-based coating. The coating provides a moisture barrier next to the product. It helps maintain the shelf life, and the coating disperses into water during recycling. Still, it comes with its challenges.

“Because it’s not anything like polyethylene, we kind of have to re-learn the process,” Bain said.

In another innovation, Bain said they are using a renewable coating derived from sugarcane-based polyethylene. Oatly has launched a paperboard cup for some of its frozen products using this packaging. The packaging, called Sentinel, was launched through Stanpac’s paperboard supplier Evergreen Packaging, and is also manufactured from renewable resources and paper derived from trees from forests where responsible forest management practices are used.

Niels Fogh Nielsen, product and concept manager for ice cream solutions at Tetra Pak, said they have seen an increase in demand for paper materials in packaging, and the biggest challenge in developing this kind of packaging is the robustness of the paper as it’s two to three times as thick as traditional materials.

In terms of “recycle ready” packaging, Gregg said Winpak has made significant investments in its Refresh line of recycle-ready packaging structures. Additionally, they have successfully utilized high-clarity barrier polypropylene in the handheld snack category, and this provides excelled aesthetics while maintaining a 5 recycle designation for the polypropylene recycle stream.

Bain said all the research and development into recyclable products has come at a cost. He said as in everything, there are some early adopters of this trend who are having to pay more, but he expects general efficiencies will improve within a few years and the price will come down.

Bain said some of the biggest challenges with frozen dairy packaging right now are that many different options being developed by various companies, and they are trialing and making sure they are getting the operational efficiencies they need. They are testing products for shelf life and making sure they will run across filling equipment at dairies.

Gregg said they focus on rigid packaging design that offers “hidden value” by being space-efficient, optimizing unit pallet load, and enhancing product merchandising considerations.   

“This push for sustainability overlaps with the ongoing requirement of optimizing package cost while maintaining critical package performance characteristics,” Gregg said.

Targeting consumers

Kate Vlietstra, global food and drink analyst at Mintel, agreed that there is an increased interest in compostable, biodegradable and plant-based materials being used in frozen dairy packaging. At the same time, she said consumers need to adjust to the different look and feel of plant-based packaging. In many cases, Mintel has seen consumers become more concerned about the food safety of products when they are made from recycled materials, and the industry must address this perception.

Vlietstra said in terms of the information consumers desire to see on the packaging, they are most interested in health messaging. Still, she said in Europe they have seen some sustainability rating systems being tested for the purpose to communicate the environmental friendliness of the product on-pack. Along with this, Nielsen said the more sustainable material used in the packaging, the healthier the product is often perceived by consumers, and consumers who are looking for sustainability in packaging are often looking for healthier products.

Vlietstra noted another interesting trend is for premium ice cream brands to package their products in jars. While this packaging still represents a tiny percentage of new product introductions, it is worth noting.

As an example, Talenti packages their gelato products in jars that are made of 100% recyclable plastic. On their website they also encourage consumers to reuse the jars for crafting projects, and they encourage consumers to post pictures of how they reused their jar on social media using the hashtag #Pintcycling. The company often reshares submitted photos.

Bain also said new flavors are being introduced in the dairy space like never before, and they are seeing a lot of work going into their art department to introduce these flavors on-pack. He said flavors that used to be seasonal are staying year-round.   

“We are just seeing there is no break, no seasonality, there are new flavors being introduced all the time,” Bain said.

Overall, with consumers and the industry looking for more environmentally friendly packaging solutions, experts agree that dairy companies that combine sustainability and health messaging on packaging will have a leg up on the competition going forward.

This story is featured in the September issue of Dairy Processing