High Liner Foods, headquartered in Danvers, MA, is one of North America’s largest processors and marketers of superior-quality seafood products for both retail and foodservice venues. The company markets its frozen seafood to retailers under the Sea Cuisine and Fisher Boy brands, and is also a major supplier of private-label seafood. Its foodservice division is one of the leading broadline suppliers of seafood to the foodservice marketplace.
According to High Liner marketing services manager Gwendolyn S. Goguelet, the company places a high value on sustainability in the sourcing of its primary products. “High Liner Foods is committed to protecting the environment through responsible business practices, innovative solutions, and a promise to produce, procure, and distribute seafood that is harvested or farm-raised in a sustainable manner,” she says. The company’s goal, she adds, is to ensure its products are 100% sustainable by year-end 2013.
That commitment extends to the packaging in which its products are distributed, as well. For some time, High Liner has worked toward optimizing its packaging through efforts such as reducing the size of its shipping cases, lightweighting its packaging materials, and opting for full truckloads versus limited truckloads to maximize trailer space and reduce fuel costs.
In spring 2010, High Liner cast about for a solution that could further reduce its packaging footprint and “affect the broadest possible spectrum of paperboard”—the company’s largest packaging material group—says Goguelet. It was an article in a trade magazine, she explains, that led High Liner to investigate a mineralized coating technology from Smart Planet Technologies. High Liner’s eventual decision to switch to EarthCoating™ for its retail packs, representing a staggering 26 million cartons/year, was one that reverberated up and down the packaging supply chain for its frozen seafood products.
Technology goes against the tide
High Liner Foods packages over 300 SKUs of frozen seafood in paperboard cartons, for its Sea Cuisine, Fisher Boy, and private-label retail brands. The company uses 10 different carton sizes, in 16- and 18-pt SBS board, converted by Cenveo Labels and Packaging. The cartons use a recyclable, aqueous gloss, polymer-based coating on the outside, and until recently, a coating made of 100% low-density polyethylene on the inside.
EarthCoating, from Smart Planet Technologies, is a relatively new technology that allows up to 60% of the LDPE in a barrier coating to be replaced with calcium carbonate (CaO3). “This is a very, very high-performance barrier coating that can be applied to just about any type of paper or folding carton material, using essentially all of the same equipment,” explains Smart Planet CTO Chris Tilton. The clear coating is said to provide up to a 60% greater Moisture Vapor Transmission Rate (MVTR) than 100% LDPE and offers comparable heat-seal performance. The mineralized coating has also been approved by the Food & Drug Administration for direct food-contact applications.
While High Liner was intrigued by the potential of using EarthCoating on its cartons, its main concern was freezer performance. “The production, shipping, and freeze/thaw cycles in the frozen industry are always a primary concern for integrity of the product on shelf,” says Goguelet. “We needed to ensure that neither the function nor the aesthetic appearance of the product would be negatively affected.”
Hooking suppliers on the new technology
Successful use of the new coating also depended upon the ability of High Liner’s converter, Cenveo, to print and cut the paperboard to the same quality standards as High Liner’s existing packaging, as well as the ability and willingness of the paperboard supplier—Clearwater Paper Corp.—to work with the new coating material on its existing equipment.
“Initially Cenveo was cautiously interested,” says Goguelet. “However, they were more than willing to pursue the sustainability objective, and they worked closely with us on every step to achieve this goal.”
Dusty McGuire, marketing and sales development for Cenveo, concurs with Goguelet’s assessment: “Initially there were concerns regarding the material’s ability to equally perform in comparison to the customer’s typical substrate. We also had concerns regarding the substrate’s ability to withstand extremely cold temperatures. We quickly learned this one-of-a-kind substrate was up to the test, surpassing our expectations.”
As for Clearwater Paper, Goguelet says they were “concerned about the impact on their equipment performance, as the project required some testing and adjusting in their plant.”
Richard Dreshfield, director of Marketing and Customer Service for Clearwater Paper, agrees: “With any new material, there is always a concern about how well it is going to run through existing equipment—whether equipment modifications will be required, those types of things.” He adds however that Clearwater Paper was initially very interested in experimenting with the new coating material. “We know that there is a lot of work and innovation going on in the market around alternatives to straight LDPE,” he says, “and we want to stay abreast of those.”
The supply-chain collaboration unfolded as follows: High Liner contacted Cenveo about the move to the new coating, and the fish processor and converter then worked closely with Smart Planet to determine the coat weights and packaging material. Cenveo communicated with Clearwater Paper, which also received technical assistance from Smart Planet in running the new coating through its existing processing equipment.
The project took eight months of trials and experimentation before the new cartons were ready for a full production run.
Tackling trial runs
During trials of the new carton coating, High Liner began by asking Cenveo to send board samples—the products use Clearwater Paper’s Candesce C1S paperboard—for an assessment of EarthCoating’s performance and the improvement in sustainability ratings, Goguelet explains. Cenveo then ran an in-plant test to evaluate the cutting and printing output. Cenveo prints the board at its Jacksonville, FL, plant on a KBA sheet-fed offset press in six to eight colors.
When it was determined that not only did cartons coated with EarthCoating on the inside surface handle as well as 100% LDPE-coated materials, but also that the cartons “resulted in a more seamless production entirely,” according to McGuire, Cenveo approached Clearwater Paper about producing test quantities of the board. For the trials, Clearwater Paper evaluated two different coatings: one with a 40% mineral load, and one with a 51% load.
“On our equipment, we determined that, at least to start with, it makes more sense to run the 40-percent mineral load,” says Dreshfield. “One reason is that it is a little easier to run on our extrusion-coating lines, and we are still optimizing the process. The other is that the 40-percent mineral load performs much more like straight LDPE in downstream filling operations, such as heat-sealing.”
According to Dreshfield, changes to the production process at Clearwater Paper as a result of the new coating included the need for a secondary feed system to feed the coating material separately into the extrusion coating lines. “The setup and runnability are also a little bit different than a straight LDPE,” he adds. Clearwater Paper is now a licensee of EarthCoating for its line of Candesce paperboard products.
For the trials, High Liner packed a number of cartons coated with EC-40 with frozen product and conducted freezer and shipping tests. “Finally, we assessed the packaging as it appeared on shelf to ensure that everything performed as anticipated,” says Goguelet. “The staff at High Liner was pleased with the excellent results of the test.”
Reeling in savings
In late 2011, High Liner launched the first of the new EarthCoating-coated cartons into the retail market. Using a Life Cycle Analysis of the raw materials performed by compounder Heritage Plastics as a guide, High Liner expects to reduce and remove up to 40,000 lb of plastic per year. Not only does the new packaging use fewer petroleum-based materials, but “the larger-sized cartons are also now recyclable where local municipalities have the appropriate facilities,” Goguelet says.
Additionally, the LCA suggests that by switching to EarthCoating versus 100% LDPE, High Liner will reduce greenhouse gas emissions 10% from 2,625 CO2 equivalent lb/ton to 2,362 CO2 equivalent lb/ton, and will reduce energy use from 232 kw/ton to approximately 228 kw/ton. Smart Planet’s Tilton explains that the reduction in energy represents a comparison between the manufacturing costs of extracting and processing petrochemicals, and the energy required to mine and process the minerals.
Reflecting on the packaging transition, Goguelet says: “Our goal was to make an important stride toward sustainability with minimum impact on the supply chain. This was a challenge because it involved a shift in thinking from our suppliers and, eventually, a physical shift in the board supplier’s production environment. We are pleased that our suppliers chose to work with us on this endeavor, and to fully cooperate with Smart Planet in its execution.”
As for the upstream supply chain impact, High Liner has found success there, as well. Reports Goguelet, “Walmart/Sam’s has been very interested and pleased by our efforts in packaging sustainability.”