Fonterra develops plant-based packaging

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From sugarcane in Brazil to a sustainable plant-based plastic milk container now on sale in New Zealand supermarkets.

This is just one of the many innovations developed by Fonterra, as the dairy cooperative is preparing to make all of its packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

Recently, the company invited the media to see, firsthand, some of its packaging innovations and product development underway at its Palmerston North Technical Center.

Packaging is a big deal, with strong community pressure for companies like Fonterra to improve the sustainability of their packaging materials. The company says packaging is a complex global issue and the materials used are very complex, but it is doing its part to better understand what recyclable really means in all of its markets.

Emily Thomas, responsible for sustainable packaging at Fonterra, says that not only new packaging should be recyclable. It also has to meet strict food safety requirements and deal with the natural complexities that occur with products such as cheese, which require fairly specific conditions to maintain their shelf life.

“If you think of something like cheese, we’ll wrap a 20kg block of cheese in plastic, put it in a box, and let it ripen for a few months or even years,” says Thomas.

“There are cheeses that continue to ferment, if you think of Swiss cheese, there are holes and they are developed by the gas during this maturation process. If we don’t let some of that gas out of the bag, it’s going to explode, but we also don’t want a bag with a hole in it because we don’t want the water to run off because the cheese will dry out. “

Thomas says Fonterra is working with packaging suppliers in New Zealand and overseas to make sure it has the best options available. She says new materials are being developed, such as a recyclable film to wrap Mozzarella cheese that Fonterra now produces.

She says new recyclable milk powder sachets are being tested and if this proves successful it will add to the range of sustainable packaging used by Fonterra.

Domestically, a brand new Anchor, a 2-liter milk bottle hit the market late last year. In a sense, it’s a polyethylene bottle just like the standard bottle, but it’s different in that it’s made from ethanol, which is made from sugar cane grown in Brazil.

The bottle is slightly different, in that the plastic seems to be thinner and lighter. From the consumer’s point of view, it is a bit more expensive because the resin is more expensive to manufacture. Like the old bottle, it is also recyclable, explains Thomas.

“Polyethylene, instead of coming from the petrochemical industry, was made from sustainably produced sugar cane,” she explains. “You can make ethanol from sugar cane – it’s been done for years and ethanol can be made into polyethylene. But the big advantage is that its carbon footprint is very low.

Thomas says having a low carbon bottle of milk gives consumers an option and it’s about choice. But Fonterra does not intend to make all of its milk containers from ethanol, as this would increase the overall price of milk and potentially reduce market share in a competitive market.

Fonterra says the introduction of the plant-based milk bottle is just one example of the company’s commitment to sustainable packaging in action.


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