During in-booth visits with TC Transcontinental Packaging (Montreal, Quebec), the Packaging Sector of TC Transcontinental, during different McCormick Place Chicago tradeshows over the past months, I've been impressed by the supplier’s sustainable activity and innovation in the flexibles market.
This compostable peanuts bag made from certified compostable materials supported green initiatives of arenas and stadiums in the United States and earned a Gold award for sustainability in the 2018 FPA.
When a recent opportunity arose to explore these developments further, I connected with Alex Hayden, Senior Vice President, R&D, Innovation and Sustainability. We discussed the industry issues and dynamics that affect this sustainably driven converter, which is pushing the boundaries of what flexible packaging can do within a circular economy.
Let’s start with defining “sustainable” packaging.
Hayden: We define sustainable packaging as “packaging that presents a lesser environmental footprint than that of alternative packaging solutions.”
It has been proven, through life cycle assessments (LCA), that flexible packaging uses less fossil fuels, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and uses less water than other packaging formats.
We also consider recyclable, compostable and reusable packaging formats and packaging made of post-consumer recycled content as sustainable.
Flexible packaging offers an excellent product-packaging ratio, which leads to an efficient resource utilization. We design our packaging for a wide range of end-product applications and seek to find the right balance between material composition and weight while ensuring an optimal product protection.
Being highly engaged in sustainable packaging development also means as a Corporation we need to be part of the efforts made to tackle the challenge that flexible packaging presents, which is end-of-life management. Packaging composed of several polymers are currently more difficult to recycle. We are fully cognizant of this dilemma and this is why our R&D Department dedicates substantial effort towards developing eco-responsible packaging solutions.
What’s the company’s history in delivering sustainable solutions?
Hayden: The pursuit of a long-term vision is simply part of our DNA. As a family-controlled corporation, we have the desire to build a lasting company and to pass on the legacy of a solid, responsible corporate citizen. We have always demonstrated our leadership in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and we are proud to continue doing so by investing in the development and wellness of our employees, adopting good practices to limit the environmental impact of our operations, innovating in the development of sustainable products for our customers, from sourcing to end-of-life, and by contributing to the communities in which we operate.
From our first Environmental Policy in 1993, to the 2012 update of our Paper Purchasing Policy and the release of our three-year CSR plans, we have shown that our commitment to contribute to the development of sustainable business practices is firmly rooted in our values. Throughout TC Transcontinental’s history and well before beginning our transformation into flexible packaging in 2014, we already had, as Canada’s largest printer, a significant positive influence on forest management practices and on protecting ancient and endangered forests. TC Transcontinental is recognized as a Canadian industry leader in sustainable procurement of certified papers, and in this sense, has been an important player in the creation of a circular economy for paper.
Today, building on our history with paper, we are determined to make strides towards a circular economy for plastics through our integrated strategy to that effect. We want to ensure that plastic never becomes waste, and that flexible packaging is effectively managed at its end of life.
We launched in North America earlier this year one of the first-in-market, 100% recyclable, multilayer barrier stand-up pouch in partnership with Harney & Sons, an American tea company, for their loose tea flexible plastic pouch. Thanks to this innovation, we won the Gold award for Sustainability at the Flexible Packaging Achievement (FPA) Awards in 2019.
In terms of compostable films, we offer custom-designed solutions developed in collaboration with our customers. These solutions are made from 100% renewable resources. For example, we developed a new flexible peanut bag from certified compostable materials in order to support the green initiatives of arenas and stadiums in the United States. We won the Gold award for Sustainability thanks to this compostable bag at the 2018 FPA Awards (shown above).
Next: State of the industry and circularity
How would you characterize current interest in sustainable packaging?
Hayden: When we first entered the Packaging industry a few years ago, sustainable packaging was part of some of our discussions with customers, and usually came as a topic at the end of a meeting. Today, when meeting with our customers, independent of market or size, sustainable packaging solutions is top-of-mind and, more often than not, the very first topic of the meeting.
Les Aliments Jardi snacks are packed in 100% recyclable, multilayer barrier stand-up pouches that earned TC Transcontinental Packaging a 2019 PAC Canadian Leadership Award this past summer.
Brands are very aware of the growing global concern regarding the environment. They have come to realize that consumers are looking for packaging options that are better for our planet. They are demanding sustainable products that are recyclable or compostable, as they wish to contribute to a better environment, starting with what they consume and reducing packaging waste. Consumers are also asking to understand how recycling works and how they can make a significant impact. There are definitely opportunities to educate them on the topic.
In this context, many of our customers have already committed to sustainability targets of their own either through the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment or their Corporate Social Responsibility Plan. They are seeking to develop solutions with their partners and are more willing to test and commercialize those solutions faster. We are definitely seeing a growing interest in sustainable packaging from our customers, as well as from all stakeholders involved in the supply chain, and beyond. We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with them and to continue supporting our customers along their own sustainability journey. Our R&D strategy is focused on a deep understanding of our customers’ needs and market trends. Working closely with our supply chain partners, we intend to accelerate the path towards a circular economy for plastic packaging.
What are the challenges in this market?
Hayden: The main challenge is that each market has its specificities, its set of applicable legislation and system regarding recycling infrastructures, etc. As such, there is an opportunity for harmonization in order to better support eco-design initiatives undertaken by manufacturers like us.
For example, the quality found in bales of outgoing materials from material recovery facilities is a challenge. If we want to create a market for these materials, in order to have post-consumer plastic bought and reintroduced into the value chain, we need to ensure quality optimization from the get-go at sorting facilities. On that front, as a manufacturer, we are committed to acting together in a concerted manner with all stakeholders involved, in order to rise to the packaging end of life challenges we are facing as an industry.
In order the support brands’ eco-design initiatives, it also must be fairly easy for consumers to recycle a package. Consumers need to know how and where to recycle. Recyclable film pouches are a good example. They can be recycled in almost any collection program that accepts plastic shopping bags. Most of the time, those collection systems are dedicated receptacles at retail stores.
Transcontinental joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment in March. What are the ramifications of that?
Hayden: TC Transcontinental became the first Canadian-based manufacturer to sign the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, a large-scale initiative. This foundation unites businesses, governments and other organizations worldwide behind a common vision and targets to address both plastic waste and pollution. TC Transcontinental thus pledged that by 2025 100% of its plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable, among other things.
For our customers, it means that they can work with us to create eco-responsible solutions that are cost-effective, and to support them in achieving their own sustainability goals.
Additionally, the Corporation commits to collaborating towards increasing reuse, recycling and composting rates for plastic in the communities where it operates. This will undoubtedly yield greater benefits for our communities and the environment, while driving value for our shareholders.
Can you point to projects that specifically address plastic packaging circularity?
Hayden: In addition to the pledge, we are committed to working with players from the plastic value chain to channel investments that will enable better capture of plastic by the sorting facilities and better uses for recycled material.
Our vision is that all post-consumer plastic packaging put on the market in Québec— where TC Transcontinental’s head office is located—should be collected, then recycled with the goal of giving it a second useful life.
Meanwhile, we are tackling the challenges in the U.S. and our intentions are to extend this vision on a global scale. As a leader in flexible packaging in North America, the company has the resources, the knowledge, the financial capacity and the desire to contribute to the transition towards a circular economy for plastic.
Last spring, we announced a first step to a circular economy for plastic in the province of Québec, in Canada. TC Transcontinental is the leader of the door-to-door flyer distribution industry in Québec. Originally, the Publisac first solved an environmental problem. Many people had been complaining that their flyers were blown away by the wind: the bag solved this problem and simplified distribution. As such, today, printed flyers are distributed inside a plastic bag, and both are 100% recyclable in the municipal recycling system. Starting this fall, to further reduce our environmental footprint, the Publisac, currently made from virgin and recycled plastic, will be replaced by a bag that reuses 100% plastic diverted from waste streams. This new bag will still be 100% recyclable.
TC Transcontinental intends to become a significant buyer of plastic waste to be reused in both its flexible packaging production and for the Publisac. We believe that all plastic packaging should be recovered and recycled. Through that process, municipalities as the party responsible for sorting facilities on their territory have an important role to play. On that front, we have been collaborating with elected officials in the province of Québec in order to educate ourselves on the recycling process and additional steps that can be taken in order to further support the information shared with citizens regarding best recycling practices, as part of an ongoing educational effort on our end.
Next: Advances, misconceptions, concerns—and what’s next
What technologies are advancing the flexible packaging market?
Hayden: Technological options are acting as drivers in sustainable packaging. This is very much the case that came into play with our Harney & Sons pouch. For example, the importance of keeping a product fresh, especially when it’s a highly valuable item, such as tea, is key. In that case, a pouch with EVOH barrier was necessary for our customer. We were able to achieve this result in collaboration with our suppliers. Harney & Sons connected with us because they knew we could support their mission of giving back to the environment that grows the tea of the world. It’s a win-win!
In this case, we knew that a multilayer, coextruded film was essential to preserve the delicate flavor of tea by protecting the product’s natural oils that give tea leaves a smooth flavor and finish.We developed one of the first commercialized package for food that hits all notes: 100% recycle ready for in-store drop off, EVOH barrier for product preservation, seal strength, and durability. We know that EVOH delivers outstanding barrier to gases, organic vapors and moisture, preventing deterioration of the product and extending its shelf life; it plays a crucial role in food packaging. However, the challenge with barrier films from a sustainability perspective is that it is not easily broken down and recycled, therefore hindering its reuse and contribution to positive environmental change. This is where Dow’s Retain resin technology comes into play; by providing the solution to this concern by using a compatible barrier, thus allowing for a multilayer film to be fully recyclable and attain sustainability goals.
Our pouch for Harney & Sons stole the show at the 2019 Flexible Packaging Achievement Awards Competition by winning the Gold Award for Sustainability, the Gold Award for Packaging Excellence and the Silver Award for Technical Innovation.
Additionally, our compostable peanut bag is another example of a collaboration that brought about science, technology and innovation. By blending all of these, we were able with our partners to create an industrially compostable film. This flexible peanut bag was designed using certified compostable materials to support arenas and stadiums’ green initiatives and help sports teams, venues and leagues achieve the next level of landfill waste diversion. With this compostable package, TC Transcontinental took Gold for Sustainable Packaging at the 2018 Flexible Packaging Achievement Awards Competition.
What’s a misconception about sustainable packaging that you can dispel?
Hayden: That not all plastic packaging is created equal! There are many misconceptions about flexible packaging. That is why we believe in educating and informing our customers, and in turn their consumers as well. Flexible packaging tends to be very material efficient, lightweight, and with relatively low life cycle impacts like carbon footprint, which is advantageous. It also offers a number of sustainability benefits throughout its entire life cycle (especially when compared to other package formats) including: material/resource efficiency; lightweight/source reduction; transportation benefits due to inbound format and lightweight nature; shelf life extension; reduced materials to landfill; high product-to-package ratio; and beneficial life cycle metrics.
How active is the company in developing partnerships?
Hayden: Solving the challenges of sustainability requires action from across the value chain and collaboration between all stakeholders. We are very proud of the relationships we have built over the years with our esteemed partners, such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, the Flexible Packaging Association, and the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, to name a few. As we move along our corporate social responsibility journey, we will continue developing strategic partnerships, striving to keep #ActingTogether, which is the title of our recently released 2019-2021 Corporate Social Responsibility Plan, towards a more sustainable future.
What industry concern keeps you up at night?
Hayden: The flexible plastic packaging we produce contains, protects and facilitates transport and storage of the product it holds. For food applications, it protects the product before it reaches its intended market or consumer, and also extends shelf life at the retailer’s store or in the consumer’s home. As such, flexible packaging provides people with access to the food that our customers grow, produce or market, and also helps to fight global food waste. When food is wasted, the resources used to produce it, such as water, land and energy, are also wasted. Our flexible plastic packaging helps to mitigate and lessen that risk.
Each year, about 30% of global food production destined for human consumption is lost or wasted. Studies by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that per capita food waste by consumers is currently between 95 kg and 115 kg a year in Europe and North America. This does not make sense economically, socially and environmentally. The packaging industry is continuously working, namely through research and development, to improve protection and preservation of product integrity. In this way, it participates in global efforts against losses and waste. According to ReFED, a non-profit organization aiming to reduce food waste in the U.S., packaging is one of the solutions identified to reduce this burden.
Lastly, what’s in your R&D pipeline?
Hayden: Consumers are becoming more aware of end-of-life scenarios for packaging materials and they want to be part of the solution for a greener environment.
TC Transcontinental Packaging continues to develop sustainable packaging solutions. We are developing our next generation of store drop-off recyclable films for high speed filling efficiencies and high barrier for product protection. Currently, we also offer films that are compostable in industrial compost settings and we are working to develop and commercialize solutions for the home environment.
Sustainability will definitely drive the entire flexible packaging industry in the coming years. For TC Transcontinental Packaging, that means creating a circular economy where all the players from sourcing, manufacturing and end-of-life management are involved and accountable to create the perfect sustainable packaging.