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Live at FlexForum: Kraft Heinz Navigates Flexible Packaging's Headwinds

Kraft Heinz's Linda Roman details efforts to explore and implement alternative packaging solutions, such as incorporating PCR in films and making the lightweight, CO2-friendly case for flexible packaging.

Kraft's Shake 'n Bake brand dropped the plastic liner since it didn't affect the dried breadcrumb shelf life, and consumers didn't use it to 'shake' coat their poultry/fish. They simply didn't need it, so they eliminated it.
Kraft's Shake 'n Bake brand dropped the plastic liner since it didn't affect the dried breadcrumb shelf life, and consumers didn't use it to 'shake' coat their poultry/fish. They simply didn't need it, so they eliminated it.

Linda Roman, associate director, R&D packaging at the Kraft Heinz Company, spoke to plastics pros here at the PLASTICS Industry Association's FlexForum yesterday about the evolving landscape of flexible food packaging, highlighting the challenges and opportunities for sustainability and recycling within the industry.

The packaging and manufacturing machinery industry stands at a critical juncture, particularly in the realm of flexible food packaging. Roman, a seasoned professional from Kraft Heinz, emphasizing the need for collective action and innovation to overcome prevailing challenges.

One step up, two steps back

Off the bat, Roman acknowledged the inherent difficulties in making substantial progress toward sustainability goals.

"It's hard to not be discouraged," she said, and invoking the 'The Boss,' Bruce Springsteen, added, "it often feels 'taking one step up, two steps back.'" 

The song lyric captures legislative hurdles, recycling inefficiencies, and the real struggle many in the industry face: making significant advancements in sustainability while navigating regulatory complexities and shifting market demands.

For example Kraft Heinz's enterprise-shaking 2023 commitment to reduce virgin plastic usage, and increase recyclability. Ditching the plastic "shaker bag" in Kraft Heinz's iconic Shake 'n Bake seasoning was one example. This was quickly followed by New Jersey legislators making the claim that chemically recycled plastic isn't PCR. If not for that designation, circular chemically recycled material could have been a major input in replacing virgin plastic in other applications. 

"One step forward, two steps back. Another example is us when we make major progress in developing mono-materials that can be more easily recycled--one step forward--only to then see an exposĂ© in the news that store drop-off programs are diverting from recyclers to landfill. Two steps back."  

 One of the more pressing issues Roman highlighted is the challenge of material reduction. Legislation that requires significant source reduction does not always recognize the transition from heavier, rigid bottles to lighter, flexible films as a valid form of source reduction. This discrepancy underscores the need for a more nuanced understanding of sustainability within legislative frameworks.Kraft's three routes to virgin plastic reduction.Kraft's three routes to virgin plastic reduction.

Reasons for optimism

Despite these challenges, Roman remains optimistic about the potential for innovation and collaboration. She detailed Kraft Heinz's efforts to explore and implement alternative packaging solutions, such as incorporating recycled content and investigating materials beyond plastics. These initiatives are part of a broader strategy to make packaging more sustainable without compromising on quality or performance.

"Flexible films are growing [because] flexible films are the right solution in the right cases. We recognize that we can make a difference together to recycle flexible films and turn them into a valuable end market, so people will want to collect them and recycle them," Roman said.

Roman also stressed the importance of challenging conventional wisdom and exploring new technologies and materials. By partnering with startups, universities, and other organizations, the industry can leverage collective expertise to scale innovative solutions more effectively. This collaborative approach is crucial for driving progress in sustainable packaging.

The legislative environment surrounding packaging and recycling is both a challenge and an opportunity for the industry. Roman pointed out the complexity of navigating various state and federal regulations, which can sometimes hinder progress. However, she also sees these legislative efforts as a driving force for innovation, pushing companies to develop solutions that not only comply with regulations but also set new standards for sustainability.Linda Roman, Linda Roman, associate director, R&D packaging at the Kraft Heinz CompanyLinda Roman, Linda Roman, associate director, R&D packaging at the Kraft Heinz Company

A critical aspect of advancing sustainable packaging is engaging consumers in the recycling process. Roman emphasized the importance of educating the public on the benefits of recycling and how to recycle properly. This engagement is vital for increasing recycling rates and ensuring that recyclable materials do not end up in landfills. By working together, companies and consumers can create a more sustainable future for packaging.

The transition towards more sustainable packaging solutions is not just an environmental issue but also an economic one. Rroman touched on the financial challenges of adopting new packaging technologies, particularly the quest for cost neutrality. The industry must find a balance between investing in sustainable materials and maintaining profitability. This balance is crucial for the widespread adoption of greener packaging solutions. Companies are encouraged to explore innovative business models and partnerships that can offset the initial costs of sustainable packaging, making it a viable option in the long term.

As the industry moves forward, the establishment of global standards for sustainable packaging becomes increasingly important. Roman mentioned the need for a unified approach to sustainability criteria, which would facilitate international trade and reduce confusion among consumers. By aligning on standards such as recyclability criteria, material health, and carbon footprint assessments, the industry can foster a more transparent and efficient global market for sustainable packaging solutions.

Digital technology offers another avenue for innovation in sustainable packaging. Roman hinted at the potential for digital tools to optimize packaging design, enhance recycling processes, and improve supply chain transparency. For instance, blockchain technology could be used to trace the lifecycle of packaging materials, ensuring they are sourced sustainably and recycled properly. Similarly, advanced analytics and machine learning can help in designing packaging that uses the minimum amount of material necessary while still protecting the product. Embracing these digital solutions could significantly accelerate the industry's progress toward sustainability goals.

As the industry continues to evolve, it's clear that overcoming the hurdles to sustainable packaging will require innovation, collaboration, and a willingness to challenge the status quo. Rroman's insights offer a valuable perspective on the path forward, emphasizing the importance of collective action in shaping the future of flexible packaging.

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