Over the past year packaging suppliers have been introducing various forms of biodegradable plastics made from a variety of plants, in the main corn, based on projections that there will be a growing demand for environmentally-friendly packaging driven by consumers and recycling regulations. Some companies are predicting that the market will grow by about 20 per cent a year, as an alternative to petroleum-based packaging such as the widely-used polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Delhaize has been testing NatureWorks' corn-based packaging since August 2005 in one store. Now the chain calls the trials "successful", all Delhaize supermarkets in Belgium will be using the packaging for prepared salads. The mandate extends to external suppliers -- as well as organic and traditional bread sold in the stores.
The range of packaging made out of the NatureWorks material includes transparent delicatessen salad trays and the windows on bread bags used by in-store bakeries.
The change-over from the PET packaging to NatureWorks will be promoted through in-store posters and labels on all salad packages.
"These are to ensure that shoppers are made aware that the packaging is made from annually renewable resources," stated Dalhaize in announcing the switch.
Delhaize is Belgium's second largest food retailer. The company has stores in Greece and the US, where the chain makes 70 per cent of its profits.
In general, the price difference between materials made of renewable raw materials and standard plastic materials has decreased considerably, making the alternative cost-competitive. Suppliers hope that market-driven demand, pushed at the retail till by environmentally-conscious consumers, can bring about enough scale in their operations, allowing them to reduce the price of their biodegradable packaging products.
Over the past two years a number of major packaging manufacturers have released biodegradable products.
US-based NatureWorks, part of Cargill is one the main movers behind the biodegradable packaging trend with its introduction of polylactic acid (PLA), a corn-based polymer.
NatureWorks is focusing on the retailing end to drive the demand up through the packaging chain. By creating a demand for its product among retailers, company executives hope packagers and processors will begin offering its PLA product as an alternative.
Due to improvements in production, company executives told FoodProductionDaily.com in October that PLA has been price competitive with PET for the past 12 months. The company is also offering an improved recycling system integration and a programme that allows retailers to claim the product is greenhouse gas neutral.
PLA can be used for rigid thermoforms, films, labels and bottles. Due to its biodegradable features it cannot be used for hot-fill and gaseous drinks like beer or sodas. PLA degrades under commercial composting conditions in 75 to 80 days, the company claims.
It forms a flavour and aroma barrier comparable to PET, readily accepts coatings, inks and adhesives. Its stiffness allows for down gauging when converting from materials like PET without a loss of strength. Heat seals can be made as low as 80C, resulting in faster packaging times and increased output.
Monolayer PLA bottles can be formed on the same injection moulding and stretch blow-moulding equipment used for PET, with no sacrifice in production rate.
Auchan in France is using the PLA packaging for its salads, switching from PET in April last year. By December the retailer planned to use PLA for its pastry and to make the switch for its private label food products this year.
Both Auchan and Delhaize said they are absorbing the extra cost of the PLA packaging. Delhaize is also lobbying the Belgian government to create a separate composting stream for PLA, which would make it more attractive to environmentally conscious consumers.
Others suppliers hoping to cash in on the market include Amcor, which has teamed up with Plantic Technologies to develop a biodegradable, flexible plastic packaging for confectionary. Danish-based Danisco announced last year that it has produced a plasticiser from hardened castor oil and acetic acid. It is colourless, odorless and completely biodegradable.
Another company competing in the biodegradable packaging market is UK-based Stanelco. The company markets a natural, biodegradable food packaging based on starch, called Starpol 2000.
Germany-based BASF has also announced it will launch a biodegradable plastic based on renewable raw materials in a bid to meet what it believes will be a growing demand for environmentally-friendly packaging. The company's Ecovio plastic is made up of 45 per cent PLA from NatureWorks. The other component is BASF's existing biodegradable plastic Ecoflex, which is derived from petrochemicals.
BASF forecasts that the world market for biodegradable plastics to grow by more than 20 per cent per year.
Companies like US-based Naturally Iowa have been using PLA for packaging products like organic milk. Retailers like Delhaize in Belgium and Auchan in France have also been testing PLA for various food packaging.
In 2005, the price of all energy products increased by 17 per cent, according to a report by Ireland's government on its domestic food sector. Included in this increase were average changes in the year of about 20 per cent for motor fuels and eight per cent for electricity.