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Janna van den Elzen on Misconceptions about the Sustainable Food Packaging Industry

Janna van den Elzen has developed a circular fruit and vegetable packaging concept called Poober. It is made out of cow manure. As the face of a new generation of packaging innovators, she knows everything about the complexities of producing a total green food packaging concept and the misconceptions consumers have about the food packaging industry. Will we need to redefine the whole packaging industry or are the sustainable solutions up for grabs?


︎︎︎FABIENNE DE BEVER / CLIMATE

As a graduate student in Food Innovation and Packaging, where did your interests in this industry and sustainability come from? 

‘I developed my interest in food packaging in the first year of my bachelor's degree. I chose the specialization packaging after my first year because I learned that this is a comprehensive industry. I was able to combine my creativity and interests in food packaging. My interests in sustainability also emerged in my first year, when I realized that there are a lot of innovative opportunities to make the packaging industry more environmentally friendly.’

How do you measure sustainable food packaging?

‘A possible way to measure the sustainability of packaging is the LCA, Live Cycle Assessment. This is the most all-encompassing method in the industry. This method focuses on all aspects of the packaging process; The raw material, the production, how much product stays behind when the packaging is ‘empty’, the afterlife, and the transportation of the packaging. So do you understand now why creating a total sustainable packaging concept is not that simple?’

When is food packaging sustainable according to you?

‘For me sustainable packaging is all about how we maintain the shelf life of the product as long as possible’. The environmental impact of food waste is way bigger than the impact on the production of, for example, plastic film. This is why I recommend a packaging which contains as little materials as possible, but which provides maximum protection for the product inside.’
‘Sustainable packaging is also really product specific. Cheese for example needs to be wrapped in plastic otherwise it will mold after a couple of days. So in some cases plastic could be the most sustainable solution.’
‘I always like to use the term ‘design for recycling’. You start designing the packaging while keeping the recycling process afterward in mind. A sustainable food packaging depends on so many things. There is just not one solution. Unfortunately, consumers have a lot of misconceptions about sustainable packaging.’



‘Creating a total sustainable food packaging concept is not that simple’




Janna won the Foodmanship Award for her sustainable packaging concept in which she combined her countryside roots with her passion for the food packaging industry

What exactly are those misconceptions?

‘A lot of consumers think that plastic is the most polluting material that could be used in food packaging. This is not the case at all. I believe there is no material more beautiful to use for food packaging than plastic. It is also still the best material to maintain the shelf life of the products as long as possible. It is light in weight and therefore perfect for transportation. Plastic is easy to recycle when used as a mono-material as well. But one of the downsides of plastic is the way consumers deal with it. For example, dumping plastic packaging on the streets. This is what has to change!’

Consumers think paper or glass are more sustainable packaging materials, what is your opinion on this matter?

‘This is a misconception as well. It is not easy to determine. You are only able to recycle a paper fiber seven times. Glass is a beautiful material to use for packaging, but it is heavy. This is not efficient during transportation. It also costs a lot of energy to produce.’

What about the sustainable packaging solutions that are already out there, like biodegradable packaging or edible ones?

Janna chuckles. ‘This is a difficult one. Yes, the packaging is biodegradable, but (often) only in a composting installation. When consumers throw it away in a green waste bin, there is a great risk of disturbing the recycling process. Edible packaging is fun, but in the supermarket, it’s not hygienic at all. Maybe this could be a solution for food packaging at festivals.’

Do you have another example of greenwashing in the food packaging industry?

‘The 'paper look' is very confusing for the consumer as well. In short, it is a packaging made out of plastic, but with a paper print printed over it. It looks like paper, but it is not. People think they can throw this packaging in the old paper container. This is an example of how plastic ends up in the paper flow.’

What about bio-based materials, residual flows of natural resources like corn leaves? 

‘They could be a great solution, but you have to be aware it will not compete with the farmland of the food industry. For example, producing sugar cane just to make sustainable plastic from it is not sustainable at all. Also, if consumers do not change their polluting behavior, those sustainable alternatives we just talked about are still useless.’

How could we recycle those new sustainable materials in packaging?

Janna smiles at me and thinks for a while. ‘Great question. This is a hard one to answer though. Bio-based plastics made out of sugar cane or lactic acids need to be recycled in a different system. There is just too little of this material to make it economically viable for a recycler. When this bio-based material is not going to be recycled it will probably be burned or shipped out. So these solutions are not always as sustainable as we think they are.' 



‘Plastic could be the most sustainable solution.’




That brings us to the always recurring discussion on who is responsible for the sustainability of the food packaging industry; consumers, companies, or the government?

‘It is an interplay of all three of them. The companies are willing to change, but consumers need to change their polluting behavior around packaging as well. Too little knowledge of materials and the recycling system is a big part of this problem of misconceptions. When they put the wrong packaging in the wrong recycling bin, you will disturb the recycling process. The government could resolve this by providing consumers with more knowledge on how to recycle different materials. Through a campaign for example. The government will ban the use of disposable plastics and implement deposits on little plastic bottles in 2021.’


Janna has kneated into cow pat with her bare hands for days to get the right texture for those trays of cow manure fiber

What would be an actual good sustainable packaging?

‘Packaging is most of the time ergonomic, this means, designed for comfort. A great way to make packaging more sustainable is by using less material, like mono-materials and mono -layering. This often means packaging would be less easy to use. Make packaging more volumetric efficiency for transport, like square-shaped. But the product inside the packaging should remain good, otherwise, this solution is not viable as well’ Later she added, ‘You also have to take into consideration if the amount of energy that goes hand in hand with producing this sustainable alternative is worth it.’

Consumers would need to change their behavior for this kind of solution. Are they willing to do this?

Janna’s eyes light up. ‘I like this question a lot’, she says. ‘Consumers are willing to make more sustainable choices, but I do not think they are willing to change their behavior for it yet. I also do not know if they are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly packaging. Although, when you use fewer materials, the packaging would often become less expensive.’



‘Consumers are willing to make more sustainable choices, but they are not willing to change their behavior for it yet’




And in the case of Poober, are consumers ready for packaging made out of cow manure fiber?

‘No, I do not think so. It is still too extreme. However, packaging made out of elephant grass and bamboo are okay.’

The only remaining question is, what would make this complex industry full of misconceptions less complex in the future?   

‘In the digital future, we could work with QR codes and VR in the packaging industry. By scanning the product, you could be provided with nutrition values and recycling instructions on your mobile phone.’ I also think the government will oblige companies to make more recyclable packaging. They will make people more aware of the recycling system and how to use this as well. In my opinion, this is the most important thing to focus on right now. I am convinced that most of the consumers and companies are willing to invest in a greener environment and also in a more sustainable food packaging industry. It is all about the cooperation between the government, consumers, and companies.

Just remember, nobody has all the answers… yet’

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