Well-protected is only half the battle

Either protect the product as best possible or provide eco-friendly packaging. Is it possible to do both? How Alnatura experts resolve these conflicting objectives.

Panorama / Anthroposophie / Gesellschaft / Hirsebällchentüte

"Would you like a bit more?" was the most typical question when shopping in our grandparents' mom-and-pop shop. In that age, everything from sugar and flour to legumes were sold in bulk, weighed individually and packaged in identical paper bags. Those days are long gone. Today, retailers, manufacturers, food regulators and, not least, customers themselves expect a lot from packaging. The most important aspect: packaging must be designed to protect against spoilage, pests and contact with undesirable substances. And, of course, it must be practical, that is, easy to transport and put away in the shop or at the customer's home. Lastly, the packaging design undoubtedly has to be attractive and aesthetically pleasing.

In addition to these standards, Alnatura places special emphasis on one very special aspect; packaging should be ecologically sensible. What does this mean? Isabell Kuhl of Quality Management and the author of Alnatura's packaging guidelines explains that "for us it is important to use as little material as possible, it should be recycled or subsequently easily recyclable and made from as few packaging components as possible. And, of course, we also take into account the carbon footprint of the packaging material."

Why plastic and not glass? What might sound self-evident turns out to quickly become a conflict in the world of packaging and sustainability specialists. Take, for example, Alnatura's millet balls: How do you pack a relatively light, sensitive product in a safe and secure way that is also ecologically sensitive? From the sole perspective of product protection, glass would be the ideal packaging material, but glass is expensive, heavy and uses a lot of material in an elaborate production process; it therefore has a worse life-cycle assessment (LCA) than plastic. Aluminium as an alternative has similar good protective properties like glass, and it is incredibly light. But a large amount of energy is required to produce this metal. Aluminium also has a carbon footprint about 30 times higher than that of paper. So why not use paper? Well, basically, the answer is 'yes'. However, paper itself does not provide the air-tight packaging you need for sensitive products such as millet balls.

Considerations such as these are made by the product, quality and sustainability experts at Alnatura for each of the approximately 1,000 Alnatura products. In the case of millet balls, all the requirements for Alnatura packaging guidelines were considered. The result is plastic film made of polypropylene with an ultra-thin aluminium coating (only because this protects the millet balls from premature rancidity) as the best and most sensible compromise.

Alnatura Amaranth gepufft

Even when a decision like this is the result of intensive deliberations – it is not set in stone. "We constantly review what we can improve”, says Isabel Kuhl and provides proof directly. "Meanwhile, we have been able to save half a gram of foil in each pack of millet balls. This sounds like a small amount, but over an entire year, it means a saving of 300 kg of plastic film”. Exactly such developments are the aim for Alnatura with its packaging guidelines. This is likewise the case with the product puffed amaranth. For each package, we were able to reduce the cut-off length for the film by a centimetre. Calculated over the year, we thus save around 11 kilometres of film.

Alternative bioplastics? Bioplastics are in the headlines a lot these days. At first glance they would seem to be a real alternative to conventional plastics. Because unlike petroleum-based (and thus finite) plastic, bioplastics are made from renewable resources such as corn or wheat. Some time back, Alnatura experts put this material to the test. After weighing all the pros and cons, they came to a clear vote: Bioplastics are useful for Alnatura only in justified exceptions. The explanations for this decision are informative. The strength obtained from the corn comes, in most cases, from genetically engineered plants. Second, the promise of being ‘compostable’ turns out to not really be accurate. Bioplastics decompose at a much slower rate than the usual organic material and also do not do so thoroughly. For composting plants, this is problematic because they have to sort out this residual, non-standard material in a time-consuming process. And, finally, bioplastic might seem like a good candidate for plastics recycling, but mixing bioplastics with regular recyclable products can lead to a significant decline in quality when recycling conventional plastics. In addition to these facts, there is also an ethical aspect, as Isabell Kuhl states: "We believe that food plants such as corn or wheat should be used mainly to feed people and should not be converted into packaging".

Bioplastics not yet mature

Packaging made from bioplastic is no better than that made from conventional plastics. This is the finding of a study commissioned by the Federal Environment Agency. For instance, in the agricultural production of the source plants, soils and waters are more heavily contaminated and higher particulate emissions are generated than with the production of ordinary plastic.

Burning is better than rotting. Bioplastics do not decompose completely and also do not provide valuable compost, but only become CO2 and water. The same thing happens when you burn bioplastics. The advantage of burning is that the released heat can be used, e.g. for district heating.