Circopack: valuable data on sustainable food packaging


A potato requires a different packaging than freshly cut vegetables or a dessert. And: the packaging of ten slices of cheese has different requirements than biscuits. But which packaging - in a circular economy - is the best for which product? The Circopack research project of the Belgian consortium Pack4Food and Flanders' FOOD (platform of the agri-food industry in Flanders) answers this question.

Circopack was launched in 2019 and the project is now halfway through. "We have already collected a large amount of data, which offers our participants many starting points to make their packaging policy more sustainable," says Pack4Food director Peter Ragaert. "Companies, including those from the Netherlands, can still join and participate. They can then immediately have the data at their disposal and are also assured of an interesting knowledge network."

There are currently forty participants, both large and smaller companies and research institutions. Together they are working on 'a science-based scan for sustainable materials management'. "We are facing major challenges with food packaging," explains Ragaert. "On the one hand, packaging is crucial for maintaining the quality of products and contributes to the reduction of food waste. On the other hand, companies increasingly have to justify the choices they make in packaging. They are forced to look more and more critically at the environmental impact of their packaging.”

The LCA methodology is applied by the research group Sustainable Systems Engineering (STEN) of the University of Ghent. "It not only looks at the so-called midpoint indicators, such as the effect on climate, but also at endpoint indicators, such as damage to ecosystems. In addition, it also examines how efficiently raw materials are used and how well the raw materials are conserved throughout their entire lifespan. Another special feature of our methodology is that the LCA focuses on both the packaging and the product - the foodstuffs - and that recycling is included in the calculation. All these elements together ensure that a company can make the right choice, based on objective scientific data", says Ragaert.

To this day, the researchers are collecting all kinds of data. Ragaert: "It is not always easy to get there, because not all packaging producers, for example, are open to sharing data on energy and water consumption. But still, we succeed! We are now also at the stage where more and more studies are being carried out. Material is currently being supplied from all sides to participate in tests, such as recycling and storage tests. The recyclate resulting from the tests is also being analysed: for example, does it have a sufficient gas and water barrier compared to the original material and what about the sealability and tensile strength?”

Peter Ragaert - Pack4Food

Struggle

After all, consumers no longer want litter and plastic soup. Clients and suppliers impose conditions on packaging. The targets for recyclable packaging are becoming more and more ambitious and there are new European regulations to move towards a circular economy. Companies therefore have to take more things into account than just the required functions of the packaging", outlines Ragaert on the developments. "In addition, the choice of certain raw materials and the available sorting and recycling techniques also determine the sustainability of packaging. Businesses are struggling with this, because how can you be sure that a shift from plastic to paper packaging - which we see a lot these days - is the right choice?”

Circopack compares different packaging alternatives via LCA studies. In the first phase of the project, five food groups were selected for this purpose, arranged according to the shelf life of the products: freshly cut vegetables (short), potatoes (a little longer), cheese in slices (a little longer), and biscuits (even longer). The fifth group is desserts. Large food concerns, retailers and packaging companies, as well as smaller companies in the packaging chain, started working with research institutions last year (including the universities of Ghent and Hasselt).

Mind shift

"At the end of the project (2022) we will offer these results in an online tool. In the end, they will be available to everyone, but the participants will be able to use them right now", continues Ragaert. According to him, when does Circopack succeed? "When our research encourages companies to actually and very critically look at the materials they use for their packaging, and whether that material is the best for their product. It requires a mind shift, a change in mentality, to look at this on the basis of as objective data as possible. At the moment, many companies are all too easily shouting that paper is better than plastic or vice versa. But what do they base themselves on? Circopack can help them to come to a well-considered decision."

Want to know more about Pack4Food and joining Circopack?

Click for more information and registration. Pack4Food is a participant in PackForward, the European sustainable packaging movement of which the Netehrlands Institute for Sustainable Packaging is one of the initiators.

learn more