Kraft Foods Inc., the world's second-largest food manufacturer, is exploring how it can incorporate bioplastics into its food packaging.
``We are seeing the demand for bio-based materials growing quite strongly,'' said Jay Edwards, head of sustainable packaging for the Northfield, Ill.-based company.
Edwards said brand owners, like Kraft, are looking for biomaterials that meet the functional requirements of food packaging. But bio-based plastics, including those based on starch or cellulose, are in need of functional improvements before they are fit for such applications, he said.
Edwards spoke at the Biodegradable Plastics in Packaging Applications conference, held Sept. 13-14 in Rosemont.
In its work with bioplastics, Kraft is seeing a variety of performance gaps, he said.
Different food-packaging applications - refrigerated, dry, retort or hot fill - require a systematic set of properties: for instance, moisture barrier, oxygen barrier, shear resistance, density, sealability, stiffness, impact and printability. While traditional materials in use meet the requirements, biodegradable materials do not yet deliver top-quality results.
Bio-based materials are part of Kraft's packaging research targeting long-term goals of sustainability, he said. The overall goal is to cut energy usage, carbon-dioxide emissions and minimize waste, while maintaining product quality and safety - and meeting consumer needs. Its specific focus is on issues of material recovery, recycling, reduction or replacement; renewable resources; composting and the conversion to energy.
So far, Kraft's research shows bioplastics' major hurdles are its functionality and its price.
``Prices are not as competitive as we would like them to be,'' Edwards said.
But bioplastics have some unique functional properties traditional materials don't possess, such as good performance as a flavor barrier. ``That could be very beneficial for flexible film applications,'' Edwards said.
Biomaterials also can be used for edible films and coatings as well as ``active packaging,'' which actively helps to extend a food's shelf life and improve its quality.
He said starch-based materials stand out because of their convenience, in use and disposal. Kraft is working on starch-based trays that dissolve in water, for example.
``How do you get an easier end-of-life solution than to take your empty tray, toss it into water and it just goes away?'' Edwards asked.
Plastics play a big role in Kraft's packaging strategies, he said. The firm is converting some packaging from glass jars to plastic, after evaluating the benefits on a ``case-by-case basis,'' he said.
The first benefit is weight reduction, leading to savings on shipping. ``The next step could easily be the incorporation of recycled materials into the same jar,'' he said. A third step might draw bioplastics into the picture.
``From there, it's not hard to imagine going to a bio-based version of the plastic jar, ideally minimizing the environmental impact and getting us away from certain volatility issues with petroleum-based plastics,'' Edwards said. ``Lastly, we get to a compostable version of the bioplastic jar. That will allow composting the jar rather than recycling, which conceptually will save energy.''
But, he said, before making any material changes, companies should examine two major issues: durability and quality perception. ``If the packaging can get your products from the plant to consumers intact, then it turns to consumer perception.''
Consumers may relate a certain product with a certain type of packaging that connotes quality to them. ``If consumers are used to getting that product in a carton [and] all of a sudden you change to a bag, there's disconnect,'' he said. For example, Edwards said, East Coast consumers view pasta in a box vs. in a bag very differently than consumers elsewhere in the U.S.
As far as communicating the benefits of bioplastics to consumers, the packaging itself does not need to do that, he said - especially when consumers are confused by terms like biodegradable, reusable, recyclable and compostable. Kraft is working with industry organizations and others on that issue.
``We are trying to, in general, look for existing standards and find out the criteria for using that mark as opposed to inventing our own. If you have a whole array of markings and messages, the green-washing threat becomes the highest,'' Edwards said.