Sustainable packaging: ‘We must move as an industry’

In the packaging industry, developments are moving fast. Businesses want to and must improve their sustainability and that demands innovative solutions from a company like AFP. Customers are asking more and more questions, says Jolien Stevels, innovation and R&D manager stretch film and food packaging. A conversation about trends and innovation.

Sustainability is a very clear trend, Jolien Stevels kicks off the discussion. ‘This involves weight savings, recyclability and the use of non-fossil raw materials.’

Another related trend is functionality or performance. Products are becoming increasingly sustainable, but they must have the same or improved functionality. ‘Standards are becoming much higher, for both wrapping film and food packaging,’ says Stevels. ‘More regulations are being introduced, for example, like the European EUMOS for cargo securing during transport. And the performance of our stretch films is also rising to new levels.’

On the other hand, AFP customers, who now share responsibility for the safety of the transport, also have higher expectations. ‘We get asked how they can secure their transport and about the best way to wrap a pallet, for example. We help them do that.’

Because there’s more involved than product development, says the R&D manager. ‘We work closely with our customers in this. Not only the people in Research & Development, but also our sales employees and Technical Engineers. They know exactly how to help the customer achieve pallet stability at the lowest Total Cost of Ownership.

Not many people believed that would be possible

That raises the question about where the development of a new product begins: in the lab or with the customer? It can happen both ways, says Stevels. ‘Taking the customer’s wishes into account, you try to achieve your goals. Sometimes we look for something specific based on a customer need, but we might also come across a material in which we see new applications.’ ‘We try to link those technical possibilities to trends that we see in the market. We also look at other industries than our own, to see what the market is moving towards.’

That’s what happened with AFP’s biobased film. ‘At a trade fair, I saw a biobased material in a certain product, and wondered whether you could use it for stretch film,’ says Stevels. That looked interesting, so we conducted tests. ‘These produced a low-quality film. But because we and our customers set high standards for stretch film, we decided to continue developing it into a high-quality stretch film. Many people, including the supplier of the biobased material, didn’t think we’d be successful. But we now have a lot of knowledge about materials at AFP and we love a challenge, so we were able to develop a film that not only contains a high percentage of biobased raw material but also delivers a good performance. Now we’ve got customers for it and won an award too!’

However, that’s something that has changed in recent years, says Stevels. ‘In the past, we were already working with biobased and biodegradable films. However, the market was not prepared to make concessions with respect to the price. Things are now starting to change quickly. Which is great, because if you don’t start prices won’t drop.’

Obliged to be a frontrunner

So it’s not surprising that AFP is leading the field. ‘We all have the drive to work on sustainability. We’re currently working on recycling and alternative raw materials, reduced use of material and smarter ideas about packaging.’ Stevels also considers it an obligation to be a frontrunner. ‘Particularly in the plastics industry. The picture of plastic is slightly more nuanced than is sometimes presented, because in many cases plastic is a very efficient form of packaging. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do something about it.’

That’s why AFP has a large R&D department. ‘Not many companies have one,’ says Stevels. ‘And we invest quite a lot in it. We work on these kinds of sustainable solutions, even before there’s a demand in the market for it. And again, it fits us as a company and person to give it our full attention.’

All the knowledge of the R&D employees and the Technical Sales engineers provides great added value for customers. ‘We have a lot of in-house technical knowledge. Without that knowledge, it would be harder to change with the market. We understand our customer’s wishes, can test everything and we understand how materials work. This makes our products more relevant to the customer. I think we have gone furthest with respect to materials linked to applications.’

Closed loop applications

So, a lot’s happening already. But every business has a dot on the horizon. ‘The greatest challenge for us is to be able to make most of our stretch films closed loop. Like getting back our wrapping film and then turning it into new stretch film. We already have a film on the market made from 30 percent recycled material, post industrial material. We’re going to raise that percentage and we’re testing post consumer recycled material. And in this way, we are working towards the closed loop application.’

There’s also a holy grail relating to food packaging: ‘We’d like to make that recyclable too. That involves food safety, which is a vital aspect of food packaging. We’re obviously very dependent on legislation in this respect.’

Everything goes in steps, says Stevels, important steps with which you acquire more and more experience. ‘We can’t just watch the whole circuit for another ten years. We must move as an industry.’

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