Making liquid and viscous food packaging more sustainable

Sustainability – It’s the outside that counts

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Ilona Junker Syntegon|Making liquid and viscous food packaging more sustainable
As part of Syntegon’s sustainability team, Ilona Junker develops new technical solutions for filling machines, making it possible to use sustainable packaging materials for liquid and viscous food products. Photo Syntegon Technology

In recent decades, packaging technologies continuously improved to combine optimum product protection with highly efficient processes. One factor that has gained importance within the last few years is the environmental impact of packaging. Manufacturers are seeking new approaches to use environmentally friendly materials such as paper. Sensitive dairy products call for innovative technologies that meet these high demands. Yogurt, dessert, and dip packaging need to be safe and hygienic – especially when using paper. Ilona Junker, project manager of Sustainable Solutions at Syntegon Technology, explains sustainability and product safety are not mutually exclusive.

Ms Junker, in the context of packaging solutions, sustainability is on everyone’s mind. What trends can you identify in terms of packaging for liquid and viscous products? How will packaging change in the future?

Ilona Junker  In the future, manufacturers will rely on renewable raw materials more and more and will increasingly question conventional packaging concepts with regard to plastic content and recyclability. Existing packaging concepts will be reconsidered.

For example, plastic snap-on lids for yogurt cups will gradually disappear from the refrigerated section. They will be replaced by new solutions that considerably reduce the packaging’s overall plastic content. Reusable lids offer an alternative; they can save several thousand tons of plastic waste per dairy manufacturer every year. 

New packaging concepts are being developed as an alternative to snap-on lids for refrigerated drinks. Some initial approaches include peel-off lids with integrated drinking openings. This eliminates the need for plastic snap-on lids with drink openings – a worthwhile saving. 

Besides reducing the plastic content and improving recyclability, packaging’s environmental impact also extends to lower carbon emissions thanks to less packaging weight and less product waste. In the future, cup solutions for viscous products made of plastic-paper mixtures and mono-material solutions will replace composite materials. 

The development of sustainable packaging alternatives includes various approaches to material reduction and recyclability. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, Syntegon is working to improve existing packaging solutions and create a full paper solution for dairy products and other liquid and viscous food products.

Where does this transition to the development of sustainable packaging solutions come from?

Ilona Junker  In addition to our responsibility towards the environment and legal requirements, such as the upcoming plastics tax in Europe, changing consumer expectations are an important driver of change in the packaging industry. Media reports repeatedly associate plastic with the pollution of the world’s oceans. Congruently, consumers have very negative associations surrounding plastic packaging. Syntegon is working towards a circular economy, an approach that tries to close energy and material loops through the efficient use of resources, recycling, and waste reduction. Companies bear a responsibility for our society – especially in the case of the packaging industry – the environment. Innovation drives new sustainable solutions. For some products, sustainability is easier to implement, while for others, such as liquid and viscous foods, a large number of technological developments are necessary.

Filling and packaging machines for liquid and viscous products are very complex – just like the specialized customer requests. What contribution can Syntegon make to sustainability in such an environment?

Ilona Junker  The experts in our sustainability team have gained extensive knowledge in many different areas and work closely together to promote the use of environmentally friendly technologies. At our Liquid Food Lab in Königsbrunn, as well as on our pilot machines, we test materials for their machine runnability and hygiene properties. We also develop new technical solutions that enable the use of sustainable materials on new and existing filling lines. 

An important factor is our collaboration with packaging manufacturers and customers: Together with customers, Syntegon evaluates which adjustments are necessary for the transition to sustainable solutions. These findings then help to adapt existing machines to new requirements. It is important to us to support our customers from their initial idea and its implementation to the optimal solution that matches their specific requirements. Product safety and sustainability do not have to be mutually exclusive. To ensure maximum product protection, we include our material specialists and experts in packaging development in the process of identifying suitable technologies.

Replacement for plastic lids on dairy products
Plastic snap-on lids for yogurt or drinking cups could soon disappear from the refrigerated section and be replaced by new solutions that considerably reduce the plastic content of the overall packaging. Lids with integrated drinking openings are an alternative. Photo Syntegon Technologies

What challenges arise by using sustainable materials in processing and packaging dairy products and other liquid and viscous foods?

Ilona Junker  In the past, plastic was the most commonly used packaging material. Quite simply because it had established itself in the market with regard to processing and manufacturing. What is more, the material is very robust and easy to handle. A major challenge in the transition to sustainable materials is to keep equipment efficiency high and to minimize the rejection of faulty packaging. Paper solutions tear or crease more quickly, which renders the pack useless. 

Product handling in the machine and during transport is much more challenging than plastic cups; otherwise, machine malfunctions can occur. During storage and transportation, several aspects need to be considered. What is more, the machines have to be able to process conventional materials and the new sustainable materials. If it is only a partial transition to mono-materials or thinner composites, attention must be given – both to sufficient disinfection and other potentially damaging influences, such as temperature.

How does Syntegon meet these challenges?

Ilona Junker  At the Liquid Food Lab in Königsbrunn, Syntegon conducts research, tests, and develops new approaches until the technology is ready for the market. The goal is to assess the various processing parameters of possible packaging materials, such as paper or recyclable PP mono-material films. How are the cups destacked? How do they sit in the carrier plate? And how sensitively does the material react to temperature differences? The fully equipped Liquid Food Lab and its testing facilities enable the performance and evaluation of germ reduction and product filling tests in small quantities to ensure product safety and customer satisfaction. 

These tests support customers in their transition to sustainable materials because they can predict the necessary machine adjustments and sensory effects on the product. Highly flexible machines enable quick and easy changes between different materials – a key point when several products are to be packed and sealed on one machine. Therefore, we are working on individual solutions to retrofit existing systems, which allow changes between different materials for cups and lids. New lines are equipped with the developed solutions and become standard.

Field tests with customers are essential to accelerate the development process. We can create leading solutions when the challenges are clearly identified. This is done best when collaborating with customers and partners because they can provide the most valuable insights for optimal solutions.

Syntegon’s technologies are setting trends in the field of packaging – do you see further development potential for sustainable packaging?

Ilona Junker  There is a huge potential for development. Our goal is to develop technical solutions that make it possible to fill liquid and viscous food products into sustainable packaging made of paper or mono-material. This includes new technologies for sterilization, sealing, and machine handling. Parameters such as new materials, technological progress, digitalization, new regulations, but also regional conditions influence the further development potential for environmentally friendly packaging.

Finding sustainable packaging solutions for our customers’ liquid and viscous food products and adapting them to their brand and regional conditions is a complex process. Syntegon continuously strives to develop innovative technologies that meet the high product requirements while minimizing their impact on our planet.

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