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The Future of Sustainable Packaging: A Look at Compostable Labels

Updated: 13 hours ago


 Sustainable Packaging: A Look at Compostable Labels
Source: Espera

It's common knowledge that the bananas found at the grocery store come with a distinct round sticker from the producers. These natural fruits don't need any additional packaging due to their inherent protective layer, the peel. However, how many people actually make an effort to remove these stickers before tossing the peel into a compost bin? It's important to note that while banana peels are compostable, the stickers attached to them aren't. They can't be composted, neither industrially nor in a regular household setting.


This is the starting point of questioning the sustainability of products and their packaging materials. When this same concept is applied to the meat industry, the complexities significantly exceed the packaging considerations related to the simple banana.


The packaging of meat products is essential not only for safeguarding against outside contamination but also for extending their shelf-life for consumers. This packaging allows us to store meat in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, making it ready to access at any point during that time. Modern packaging technologies, whether Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP), shrink packaging, skin packaging, or stretch packaging, make this possible.


Shrink packaging
Source: Espera

Rethinking Required Materials


While packaging types differ depending on a food product's shelf-life, they all serve to prolong it as much as possible. However, in past years of packaging advancements, the sustainability of materials used hasn't been one of the main focuses. The current global ecological crisis underscores the pressing need for a shift in this mindset. Going forward, packaging for fresh items like meat or poultry must be created with greater environmental consideration and aim to minimize waste.


Nearly every supermarket chain across Europe has pledged to significantly decrease the current annual EU packaging waste per person, which stands at 226 kg. It's crucial for the packaging industry to keep pace, by rapidly developing eco-friendly materials. Additionally, these materials must still effectively shield products from external influences and maintain the expected shelf-life for consumers.


Currently, there are packaging options available that significantly reduce plastic waste or even offer full compostability. For instance, the Nature Fresh film by the Italian company Fabbri Group stands out in the stretch film industry. This film, which closely resembles traditional stretch films both visually and in terms of handling, is based on BASF's Ecovio® plastics. It is the first certified compostable stretch film compatible with automatic packaging machines. When paired with compostable trays, such as those made from cardboard, this film provides a complete compostable packaging solution for fresh products.


Compostability




However, it's important to define what compostability actually means. Compostability can be categorized into two different types: industrial compostability and home compostability.


Industrial compostability is presently regulated by a widely recognized standard, EN 13432. This standard stipulates that packaging materials must not exceed certain thresholds for heavy metals and other elements. In addition, it requires that at least 90% of the plastic mass should convert into carbon dioxide within a period of 180 days. After 12 weeks, no more than 10% of the material fragments can be larger than 2 mm. The standard also mandates that the biological treatment process cannot negatively impact the quality of the resulting compost. This is evaluated through a standardized plant growth test comparing the growth in compost containing the biodegraded plastic to growth in regular compost. If these criteria are met through an industrial composting process, the packaging is accepted as "compostable".


On the other hand, household compostability is used to convert organic waste into nutrient-rich compost. This set-up can range from simple compost piles in the backyard to more structured compost bins or tumblers.


Regardless of whether the benchmark is industrial or home compostability, packaging compostability is only as good as its label. The label on a package gives a clear product description, listing features such as nutritional content, allergens, expiration dates, cooking instructions and information about its origin. Legally, it's required to have uniform labeling declarations on products. This is particularly true in the fresh food industry, where every product packaging must carry one or more labels.


This implies that a package can only be compostable if its label is too. If you opt for eco-friendly packaging but use a traditional, non-compostable label, it negates the whole sustainability effort because it's unrealistic to expect consumers to remove the label before discarding the package. Therefore, both the packaging material and the label must be evaluated for compostability. Only when they're both compostable can we ensure whether the package is suitable for both industrial and domestic composting.


Sustainable, Legible, Compostable


In a collaborative project, Fabbri Group and ESPERA conducted thorough assessments of the Nature Fresh stretch film along with compostable labels, testing their compatibility with automated packaging and labeling systems. The labels are made up of a compostable NatureFlex™ backing paper coupled with a compostable BioTak® adhesive. Key aspects of the study included examining the adhesive properties of compostable labels on the compostable Nature Fresh film and the labels' processability with automatic labeling systems. The project was rooted in the following essential questions:


  • How do compostable labels perform compared to traditional, non-compostable labels?


  • What is the print quality and longevity of the print on compostable labels?


Considering a product shelf-life of up to 14 days in varying temperature settings, it's crucial that the label remains completely legible on the day of consumption, even under freezing conditions.


Temperature and Speed


During the collaborative project, the team examined how compostable film interacts with compostable labels. They also investigated the printing behavior on these labels at different printing speeds and temperature conditions.


The results show that the distinctive Nature Fresh stretch film and bio labels serve as the ideal substitute for traditional stretch films and labels. They work seamlessly with fully automated packaging and labeling systems and exhibit optimal printability across all temperature spectrums, including freezing conditions. Furthermore, these compostable labels maintain high-quality printing results, matching the performance of conventional, non-compostable labels, even at varied printing speeds.


For the first time, Nature Fresh's packaging film and compostable labels have created a fully sustainable packaging and labeling solution. The labels, certified as compostable according to EN 13432, are currently available from ESPERA. Nature Fresh's stretch film, designed for automatic stretch machines, has earned certification for its compostability in both home and industrial settings, adhering to the standard EN 13432.


With these encouraging results, the game is changing. A truly sustainable combination of packaging film and label is now possible. The future of the packaging and labelling industry is compostable, and we can't wait to see how it evolves.



This post was adapted from an article originally published in "Ftec The International Food Processing Journal" December 2020. https://www.fleischnet.de/wp-content/uploads/epaper/1000007803/Komp_Ftec_6_20_e_mag_neu.pdf

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