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Exclusive Interview with Fonterra

Ahead of this year's Sustainability in Packaging Asia 2024, we spoke with Emily Thomas, Manager of Global Packaging R&D at Fonterra Co-operative Group Limited, to get a sneak peek of what we can expect from her presentation on 'Complexity with a side order of difficulty: navigating sustainable packaging as a brand owner' Here's what she had to say...

Q1. Your presentation at this year’s Sustainability in Packaging Asia will cover Complexity with a side order of difficulty: navigating sustainable packaging as a brand owner. Why is it important for others in the industry to hear this message?

We are in the middle of a global transformation of the way we think about, use and reuse packaging.  Everything is changing at the same time – technologies, infrastructure, regulations, and the responses of our consumers.  It can be hard to know where to start, what your baseline is and  what compromises might be required.
At Fonterra we’ve been walking this sustainable packaging path for a number of years.  Whilst we have had successes, we’ve also had to compromise in some instances, such as needing to upgrade packaging machines, or re-evaluating our packaging specifications in relation to our products.  We’ve also had to define what we are not prepared to compromise, such as product quality.  One of our biggest learnings has been coming to grips with the fact that there are no perfect solutions, and that we can’t do everything.  We have to focus our resources on areas where we can make meaningful changes, and also accept that we can’t solve everything right now. Making our packaging sustainable really is a journey and it won’t stop here.

Q2. What are the main challenges in your day-to-day work relating to sustainable packaging solutions for food contact applications?

There are two big challenges for sustainable food packaging.  The first is to ensure the packaging still does what it needs to do in preserving food.  Most of the time we can’t replace plastic with things like paper or compostable polymers as these materials won’t actually keep the food fresh, especially with the long supply-chains we are dealing with as exporters from New Zealand.  Even replacing conventional multi-layer plastics with recycle-ready mono-material plastics can lead to difficulties achieving the right level of barrier to moisture vapour, oxygen, grease, and carbon dioxide.
The second big challenge is ensuring that sustainable packaging materials do not contain any unwanted chemicals that could migrate into the food and impact on quality or food safety. Some of the more novel polymers and additives may not yet have been evaluated for food contact safety.  Certainly the use of mechanically recycled plastic is of a much higher food safety risk than using virgin plastic and the quality of what is available on the market is variable and needs careful scrutiny before use.

Q3. What are the challenges the brands have to overcome in the next few years?

The packaging used for food is really visible and there is a lot of pressure on food brands to ensure packaging is recycled, to use less plastic, to put in place re-use systems.  The regulatory space is also evolving rapidly around the world and in some cases is quite divergent, and often sees packaging as a waste problem.  And yet we know that before it enters the waste stream, food packaging is essential to reduce waste and improve nutritional and health outcomes.  Food brands need to evaluate the good as well as the bad and in some cases make choices that will not please everyone, and then find a way to make this a compelling narrative for the consumer. The food industry needs to continue to advocate for a science based approach to packaging circularity and the balance between supplying high quality safe food products that feed people and the environmental footprint they leave behind.