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Tea Packaging for Impact and Sustainability

By Katrina Ávila Munichiello

A customer’s introduction to a tea brand is often through its packaging. The container’s size, form and graphics can affect whether or not a product makes it to the checkout line. Packagers spend a great deal of time evaluating the appearance, cost and performance of materials. Now they must consider an additional factor: sustainability.

Increasingly, customers are expressing concerns about the environmental impact of their shopping choices. A survey by the Natural Marketing Institute suggested that 16% (nearly 48 million) of the 300 million U.S. consumers prefer to buy products that they believe are made in an environmentally-sensitive manner. 65% of those “green consumers” say that they will spend as much as 20% more for products made in an eco-friendly way. Tea packagers and distributors are paying attention to these trends and exploring new technologies.

There is not one ideal solution for sustainable tea packaging. This article will instead present some of the options available to packagers and distributors so that they can make informed decisions on lessening their environmental impact. While a true evaluation of sustainability must include social and economic factors, this article will focus primarily on the materials.

Packaging Teabags
Many consumers have come to expect teabags to be rectangular, tagged sacs in the cellophane-wrapped paperboard boxes lining grocery store shelves. Upon closer examination, however, there is tremendous variety to be had in materials, shape and outer packaging. One can explore synthetic and natural fibers; round, pillow and pyramid shapes; and recycled and post-consumer waste packaging, among other options.

Two companies offering more sustainable options for tea packagers are Glatfelter and Ahlstrom. Glatfelter, a global leader in specialty papers production, has been utilizing a range of natural and man-made fibers in their teabag papers. They supplement wood pulp sources with abaca, sisal, jute and rayon. Glatfelter is the world’s largest producer of abaca pulp. Also known as Manila hemp, abaca is a particularly interesting material as it is 100% natural with no chemical fertilizers used. “The harvesting process is interesting: abaca plants are not cut down like trees. Each plant consists of several renewable stalks. The fibers are extracted from the leaf sheaths of stalks. Only the stalks are cut down, but, there will be new ones. So one plant can be used for up to 10 years,” says Katrin Rissmann, product manager food & beverage for Glatfelter. “Abaca is not only environmentally sustainable, but also a socially sustainable, raw material. [It creates] a livelihood for more than 1,000,000 dependents.” Glatfelter’s blended fiber bags, which include abaca in the composition, demonstrate high performance in the areas of tensile strength, infusion and dust retention. All Glatfelter tea papers, both natural and synthetic, are certified for home composting. The company is certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Forest Stewardship Council and PEFC, and it uses alternative energy sources for much of its production.

Global roll goods producer, Ahlstrom, has developed a new ultrasonic sealable filter media made primarily of PLA (polylactic acid). “The extra fine webs (of this material) highlight the contents while maintaining its shape, and easily accommodate teabag strings and tags, resulting in a teabag that looks and feels different,” according to Beth Schivley, marketing communications associate at Ahlstrom. PLA, made from yellow dent corn starch, is appealing because it is not from a petroleum-based source and is biodegradable. It is also suitable for industrial and municipal composting according to EN13432 (European standard for composting and biodegradation.) Ahlstrom’s product is a much more sustainable substitute for the nylon previously used in most “silken” bags. “In comparison to similar products using oil-based polymers, a lower carbon footprint was demonstrated...This makes the new material the obvious choice for today and tomorrow’s increasingly environmentally aware consumers and manufacturers across the world,” says Schivley. This filter media can be used on existing ultrasonic converting machines for teabags of a myriad of shapes, including pyramids.

The outer packaging for teabags offers possibilities for improvement as well. Metal canisters continue to be the choice for some premium brands, but paperboard boxes are more common. In an effort toward increased sustainability, many of the boxes are being made from a large percentage of post-consumer waste and are fully recyclable. Packagers are suggesting natural colored boxes rather than using the additional chemicals required to create pure white paperboard. For printing, there is a move away from traditional petroleum-based inks toward soy-based inks. Even the print technologies themselves have changed. According to Ben Miyares, the vice president of industry relations for PMMI, digital printing now allows a four-color print process in a single pass. “Manufacturers are using digital printing capability to purchase undecorated, unprinted card stock and printing just what is needed, rather than having to stock pre-printed cartons and then finding that you can’t keep enough or that you overprint a particular one.” This printing efficiency certainly helps reduce waste. PMMI also sponsors and produces Pack Expo, which will have a particular emphasis on sustainable packaging this year.

One company that has been placing tremendous emphasis on sustainable choices for teabag packaging is Numi Teas of Oakland, California. “Sustainability is a process. One works toward it all the time,” says Numi co-founder Reem Rahim. To that end, Numi has made changes each year to ensure its standing as a good environmental citizen. They have been using oxygen-bleached natural fibers that are biodegradable and GMO-free as the primary material for their teabags. They have converted their paperboard boxes in which the teabags are sold to 85% post-consumer waste paper, saving more than 3,500 trees and 227,000 pounds of landfill waste annually. They removed the shrink wrap from their boxes as an additional eco-friendly measure. Finally, they modified their cardboard master cases in which the boxes are packaged for shipment to distributors to incorporate 80% recycled material, saving an additional 1,700 trees and 107,000 pounds of landfill waste each year.

This year, Numi is taking a look at the overwrap, which conceals each teabag. They had previously converted the paper portion of their paper/foil wrap to a paper that is 100% post-consumer waste. They found that costs and waste were reduced and shelf life was maintained. In 2009 they took the effort further. They sought an alternative that was more sustainable, biodegradable, compostable and free from genetically modified corn products. They didn’t find an ideal solution so, as a preliminary step, they have replaced the foil with a metalized polypropylene, reducing their total packaging by 22%. As Rahim said, sustainability is a process.

Loose Leaf Tea Packaging
Loose leaf tea sellers are using steel, foil, paper, or plastic containers to keep their product fresh, protect it from light and oxygen and communicate an important brand message. Among these materials, packagers have many possibilities for sustainable and effective packaging.

Companies like Adagio and Twinings have favored metal for years. Steel canisters block light and are excellent oxygen barriers, both critical to protecting tea’s freshness and quality. Because metal containers are more expensive to produce than paperboard boxes, they have been used primarily by premium tea brands seeking shelf differentiation. Steel’s value in terms of sustainability is high. It can be recycled repeatedly without any loss of strength or utility. As Daniel Abramowicz, president of Crown Packaging Technology, Inc. stated, “Aluminum and steel are truly, infinitely recyclable. [Recycling] creates virgin aluminum and steel that is identical to mining ore from the ground. There is no contamination and no loss of physical property. It can be made into drink cans or the skin of an airplane.” Even more environmentally-friendly than recycling is the concept of reuse. According to Abramowicz, “These metal tins, like a traditional biscuit tin, can have high quality decoration and premium images. The tins can become keepsakes or storage for tea or other products.”

A new product by Innovia Films may cause some companies to take another look at bags for their loose leaf tea products. NatureFlex is a line of cellophane films, which, because they are made of cellulose wood pulp, are renewable, non-petroleum based and non-GMO. Four of Innovia’s five wood pulp suppliers are Forest Stewardship Council-certified and the fifth will have its certification by December 2009. The cellophane films can be fused together, and formed into a strong, flexible stand-up bag. “NatureFlex is a wonderful oxygen and aroma barrier, providing aroma and flavor retention that is among the best in the market,” according to Roslyn Smith, sales and marketing manager for packing and industrials at Innovia Films. “It can be used in combination with other products for a multi-layer structure. It can be clear, colored, or metalized and it takes printing and graphics well.”

In 2008, Guayaki Yerba Mate became one of the first companies to utilize this NatureFlex packaging for its product. Guayaki had been using a tin tie coffee style bag with a plastic bag insert for their yerba mate. In 2007 as they prepared to launch a new one-pound loose mate package, they researched alternatives. They had been considering foil because of its ability to protect freshness but were concerned about its impact ecologically. They thought NatureFlex could offer the best solution. They now use it for their eight-ounce and five-pound packages as well.

“The form [of NatureFlex] we use is a unique version,” says Guayaki creative director, Steven Karr. Innovia supplies the film and Guayaki hires converters to create the bag itself. Two layers of cellophane are fused with a thin layer of aluminum in between. Because the foil is protected by the cellophane coating, graphics can be printed on the foil using water-based inks. The aluminum itself, composing only 0.02% of the bag, oxidizes and becomes inert non-toxic aluminum oxide when it degrades. As a result, this product is certified for industrial, municipal and home composting.

“We discovered NatureFlex because Superfood Snacks was using it. Since then we’ve been working in partnership with Innovia and Superfood Snacks to improve the workability of the packaging. We’ve been experimenting with fusing different layers together to make our packaging better and stronger, as well as more flexible,” says Karr. “[Adopting NatureFlex] had a pretty minor cost impact. The material cost a bit more. Because of the size of the bag we developed, we fill by hand, fold and then seal with a sealer, adding a bit more labor, but the price increase was really just pennies.”

Packaging Ready-To-Drink Bottles And Cans
In some ways, evaluating sustainability in the ready-to-drink container market is the most complicated. The three most popular options, glass, aluminum and plastic, each have attributes that recommend them as sustainable. However, they each have downsides that make the decision a real challenge for packagers and distributors.

Glass bottles have typically communicated a premium image. A 2006 survey by Newton Marketing & Research found that 75% of consumers surveyed believe that glass is best for protecting a product’s taste profile. Recent concerns about Bisphenol A (BPA) in some other packaging materials have increased glass’ attractiveness once again. Glass is completely recyclable and the resulting material is of top quality with excellent clarity. Glass has challenges however. While it is highly recyclable, the actual recycling rates are quite low. Glass bottles are significantly heavier than plastic and aluminum, adding weight, and therefore cost, in shipping. Finally, the fact that glass is breakable increases the risks of product damage and loss.

Aluminum has the same advantages previously mentioned for steel in terms of utility and recyclability. Crown Packaging’s new “super end” adds to the sustainability. Using 10% less metal than a typical beverage end, the 200 billion “super end” beverage cans sold have saved 50,000 metric tons of aluminum and approximately 400,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases. Fill rate adds another important benefit. Glass and plastic bottles are filled at a rate of approximately 600 - 700 bottles per minute. Cans can be filled at a rate of 2,000 cans per minute.

There is a big challenge, however, facing metal can packagers: differentiation. “[Aluminum’s] success has almost made it seem too common,” said Abramowicz. “This issue is being addressed with new coatings, decorations and higher premium images. The cans are also being shaped. Shaping will be a big step in providing...differentiation.” From coatings that feel velvety or like orange peel to thermochromic color change ink, aluminum can print techniques have attracted companies like Polar Beverage who is releasing a new Jack Black tea product and RC Cola who is releasing Orient Emporium in Eastern Europe.

Plastic may have previously been the least attractive option to those seeking sustainability. New advances in plastic technology have changed the scene dramatically. Graham Packaging developed a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle that is seven times lighter than glass bottles and is BPA-free. These smooth-wall, hot-fill bottles called Escape are even 20% lighter than traditional PET. (More than 92% of the weight of the final bottle is from the tea itself). The bottle is filled using a continuous motion activator (CMA) machine that inverts the bottle’s base and takes up the vacuum, creating an over-pressure. This over-pressure adds rigidity. “Escape utilizes proprietary technology to ‘Super-Lightweight’ the bottle,” says Philip Sheets, senior project manager of PET new product development at Graham. “Our package displaces vacuum, created during the hot-fill process, instead of the conventional means of absorbing it...[This] allows for little-to-no geometry (smooth or slightly-ribbed panels) and a significant weight savings.” The lighter weight is important in shipping. A typical shipping truck contains 2100 glass bottles, but it can be loaded with 2700 Escape bottles. Honest Tea is the first tea company to adopt the bottle, but, according to Graham, other projects are in development. In the future, Graham also hopes to introduce a three-layer structure, where post-consumer material, up to 40% of container weight, is encapsulated between two layers of virgin PET for an even more eco-friendly option.

There are three important sustainability challenges around plastic, even with the new bottles. 1) Substantial amounts of petroleum must be used to make these PET bottles. The fuel savings from transportation are offset by the petroleum used to manufacture PET. 2) Plastic recycling rates are much lower than rates of recycling metal. 3) Plastic cannot be recycled as many times as glass.

Challenges of Sustainable Packaging
Sustainability is certainly a journey. While great advances have been made, allowing companies to pursue more eco-friendly paths, challenges continue to exist.

  • GMO - Many of the new biodegradable materials are made from corn. Concerns exist for many about genetically modified organisms (GMO) in corn. While it is said that GMOs are destroyed in the production of the packaging materials, some companies do not wish to support the growth of genetically-modified crops.

  • BPA - Over the past year, debate has increased about the safety of Bisphenol A (BPA) and its existence in plastics and metal. There have been concerns raised about the potential endocrine and neurological impact of prolonged exposure to BPA. Research continues in this area, but there is a population that is hesitant to purchase products with BPA.

  • Compostability - The “real” compostability of products is not always clear to consumers. Some products marked “compostable” should not go in home compost piles. They are intended for industrial or municipal composting, a process that, in 2006, was only available in 19 states. Labeling criteria will be important as consumers become more savvy on this front.

  • Transitions - “If you switch from polypropylene overwrap to PLA, or really any instance of switching from something more established, an adjustment will be required,” said Miyares of PMMI. “The cost savings of making the thinner carton needs to be factored against the costs of adjusting the equipment...The newer materials also have a tendency to run more slowly [on production lines] than traditional materials.”

  • Cost - Cost is always a factor with any change. Some sustainable choices result in a cost decrease or an even trade. Others, however, will require an increase in cost. There are cases when these increases can reasonably be incorporated into the product’s price. Other times, however, the cost increase simply cannot be justified against the bottom line.

    Katrina Ávila Munichiello is a freelance writer who has been blogging about tea since 2007. She is currently developing “Tea Memories,” an anthology of tea-themed essays. The “Tea Pages” blog can be found at teapages.blogspot.com.

    Tea & Coffee - September, 2009

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