The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 committed the United States to sustainability, declaring it a national policy “to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future.
Unfortunately, the U.S. isn’t doing a very good job of protecting the environment, according to researchers at Yale and Columbia universities; America ranks 24th in the 2020 Environmental Performance Index, which provides a data-driven summary of the state of sustainability around the world.
“Food waste poses a significant environmental risk and has far-reaching impacts on our society and planet,” says Marilyn Stapleton, senior director of marketing, Anchor Packaging, St. Louis. “The USDA estimates 40% of the food supply ends up as waste. In turn, this affects multiple resources, such as land, water, labor, energy and other inputs used to procure, produce, prepare, store and dispose of discarded food.”
There are a number of benefits to operating sustainably.
Through its research, Sayreville, NJ-based Sabert Corp. has learned that consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, and they view environmentally-responsible packaging as a high-quality product.
“By offering sustainable packaging in your deli department, it is a customer-facing approach to promote your sustainability efforts,” says Haley Berta, Sabert’s associate marketing communications manager. “We have seen that consumers are making a better effort to do their part for sustainability so packaging can at least make them feel good about their purchase.”
Don’s Prepared Foods, Schwenksville, PA, absorbs most of the cost of going green, since it is saving on the back end.
“People are trading down with consumption, buying cheaper foods,” says Carl Cappelli, Don’s Prepared Foods’ senior vice president of sales and business development. “It is harder than anticipated going green, because it often drives up costs, but delis demonstrate good corporate governance and earn the respect of consumers. Ultimately, this translates into more traffic and dollar ring in-store.”
Despite the pandemic challenges, sustainability continues to be prevalent.
“Sustainability initiatives start overseas; they are one to two years ahead of us, and make the way over to the U.S.,” says Peggy Cross, founder and CEO, EcoTensil, Corte Modera, CA. “They have a ban on single-use plastics and are in the process of completely converting to paper and wood utensils. The biggest issue is leaching of plastic in landfills, oceans and lakes, then animals are being impacted and it gets into our food system. That’s where the health concerns are.”
She adds that one benefit of operating green, aside from being socially responsible, is that most consumers get the significance of it.
“They understand if a company is making efforts to take care of the environment,” Cross says. “It’s an altruistic thing, and people respond positively to it.”
Supermarket deli suppliers are taking steps to operate more sustainably as well as make their offerings more environmentally friendly.
“Protecting and preserving food quality reduces food waste,” Stapleton says. “Anchor Packaging is committed to providing a complete sustainability solution for the food industry, including the supermarket deli. From delivering the chefs’ vision and protecting their hospitality promise to the consumers’ convenient enjoyment of their food and ultimate reuse of our packaging—our ongoing investment in innovation ensures less food waste and a positive impact.”
World Centric, based in Rohnert Park, CA, encourages the use of reusables in an effort to change consumer and operator behaviors.
“Utilizing compostable materials is taking some time but younger consumers are coming around very quickly,” says Mark Marinozzi, World Centric’s vice president of marketing, who also oversees sustainability efforts. “The amount of attention on our climate, the waste in the world and microplastic are some reasons younger consumers crinkle their noses when they see non-sustainable deli packaging.”
As a result, these consumers will go out of their way to visit a deli that operates more sustainably.
“Deli operators can quickly change their message with compostable or plant-based packaging,” Marinozzi says. “Those become unspoken sustainability cues.”
With the rise in demand of grab-and-go items, single-use plastics are key to support that market.
Madison, WI-based Placon uses up to 100% Post-Consumer Recycled plastic materials and all of its foodservice products are made in RPET (recycled plastic).
“Our goal is to close the loop and create a circular economy in which we recycle plastic and create it into new containers to be used over and over again,” says Kali Kinzinger, Placon’s associate product manager.
The company has been recycling plastic for over 30 years and for over a decade now has utilized its own recycling facility where it processes over 1 billion plastic bottles a year.
“This is critical to our sustainability efforts,” Kinzinger explains. “By using curbside-collected and ocean-bound plastic, we are leading the efforts in sustainable packaging. Additionally, this year we began generating our facility with solar power and can achieve up to 50% renewable power at our headquarters in Madison.”
It’s key to get the message out in whatever way possible.
“Paperboard is a huge opportunity for delis,” says Cross at EcoTensil. “While in some cases it’s harder to use a paper board because you want to see food like in clear plastic, it not only sends a message to consumers, but is easy to print on. People intuitively know paper is better for the environment than plastic.”
She admits paperboard won’t totally eliminate plastic, but it can significantly reduce its use.
“There are many options to use paperboard or paperboard with a plastic window and with paper utensils,” Cross explains. “It’s ideal for many products and for messaging.”
Don’s Prepared Foods sources clean, plant-based ingredients from sustainable partners that have green initiatives. It offers 130 clean items, or 34% of its products.
“At Don’s, we source clean plant-based ingredients from sustainable partners who also have their own green initiatives. Sustainability is important to all of us, Don’s customers, our brands and communities,” Cappelli says.
Manufacturers have unveiled new products with a focus on sustainability.
Anchor Packaging’s custom-designed solutions are reusable, recyclable and designed to protect and preserve the temperature, texture and taste of all types of food.
“Our patented processes help consumers enjoy their meal the way the chef intended and keep it out of the waste stream,” Stapleton says. “In addition, our reusable packaging protects leftovers and minimizes packaging waste.”
Anchor uses polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) materials, which deliver superior performance in preserving and protecting food quality and are reusable and ultimately recyclable. In addition, its production process requires 16 times less water and more than 40% less energy than paper/fiber packaging. “Our PP packaging (for hot and cold foods) includes reuse and dishwasher-safe guidance for the consumer,” Stapleton says. “Our PET packaging (for ambient or chilled foods) is reusable and highly recyclable—PET is the most recycled plastic in the U.S.”
World Centric just launched an extension of its No Tree line, which is bamboo or sugar cane paper used with bio lining rather than petroleum-based lining. The wood fiber and polyethylene lining acts as a moisture barrier. The line includes window containers, hot and cold cups and fry cups. All are commercially compostable.
The company also started pivoting its packaging focus with Leaf Plus, which utilizes a patent-pending process that combines hardware and software to make oil-resistant solution. This will roll out in the next two years.
“It is very advanced and still in development,” Marinozzi explains. “The third innovation is in respect to transitioning away from utilizing plant-based plastics for lids. We also developed a line of fiber cutlery with spoons and serving utensils, launching forks and knives in the near future made entirely from molded fiber. All these products reduce reliance on petroleum-based plastic and fiber.”
EcoTensil’s new paper board is certified at the highest level in Europe to be 100% plastic free.
“It’s extremely hard to achieve, and we buy that board rather than make it,” Cross says. “Called Deli Pac, it can be used for deli salad boxes, and it has no plastic coating.”
The box comes with a utensil attached to it so delis don’t have to provide a plastic-wrapped utensil.
“This utensil is produced from scraps of paper board left over from production, so it’s made without any additional material.”
EcoTensil’s new Aquadot line of sampling spoons is plastic free, compostable and recyclable”
Sabert Corp.’s research has shown that consumers are willing to pay more and buy more green products if they are available.
“Since studies show that consumers are equally interested in recyclability, recycled material use and fiber-base substitutes, our product development has led us down several paths introducing both the natural fiber solutions in our Green and Kraft Collections as well as recycled material use in our Hot and Cold Collections,” says Berta.
There are many ways delis can communicate sustainability efforts and initiatives to customers. One popular way is through in-store signage and messaging the initiatives and what that means for the environment,
“This call to action should translate to the consumer and how it helps them,” Cappelli says. “This can be accomplished by offering ‘better for you’ sustainable products. It will continue to grow since this is important to Millennials, the largest segment of the population. More supermarkets will incorporate going green initiatives in delis and other departments.”
There are a number of cues consumers are getting savvy about.
“One of the things that does that for us is the simplest; our cutlery has a tear drop shape, which shows our utensils are compostable,” Marinozzi explains. “Good Earth Market has a fabulous deli where everything is organic or sustainably produced. It can’t have petroleum-based plastic or packaging that can’t be recycled, because it doesn’t fit with its message.”
Delis need to consider to what extent the department can transition to more sustainable packaging, water use, etc. by taking an assessment of the operation.
“It may be using pesticides for animal and insect control or certain cleaners with petroleum,” Marinozzi says. “Delis need to check and see if packaging has petroleum-based lining since these can’t be recycled. It only takes a few hours to walk around an operation and see what can be done with small steps. Then communicate that to customers with signage and post on social media.”
The go-to has been plastic for containment of many foods in the deli because it’s cheap, easy and clear.
“The problem is it’s too perfect,” says EcoTensil’s Cross. “There are massive amounts of it accumulating, and every piece of plastic that has been created still exists today. Many companies are really recognizing that even if it’s not on consumers’ radar yet, they know it will be, and they don’t want to be caught off guard.”
She recommends looking at large corporations’ sustainable initiatives, in addition to what’s happening in Europe, which serves as a crystal ball as to what to expect in the not so distance future.
Cappelli predicts there will be more companies looking to be better corporate citizens.
“What our company is about is coming up with alternatives to cutting trees and extracting petroleum to make things,” says World Centric’s Marinozzi. “One of the interesting examples is waste created in the process of processing sugar or stalks of sugar cane. We’re taking stalks that used to be burned, some burned for energy and something you burn in a pile. We can make it into durable and usable containers like a wood fiber container but we don’t have to cut a tree down to do it.”
Supermarkets are able to directly market sustainable products to customers and add that extra value to their offering with environmentally-friendly products.
“We’ve seen marketing that includes custom engraving on how many water bottles were used to create each package, how to recycle the container and custom labels advertising that the package is made from recycled bottles,” Kinzinger at Placon says.
Social media and websites are among the top marketing channels to promote sustainability and increase awareness. In-store signage and banners can also help drive impulse sales.
“Sabert offers holistic solutions and services to help raise awareness and understanding that will help change mindsets and promote positive post-use behaviors,” Berta says.
Studies show that two-thirds of consumers choose sustainable products over not, meaning this will be a huge determinant in the grocery store decision.
“Sustainability will only continue to grow in the eyes of the consumer and become a necessity,” says Berta. “It will become the main driving factor for purchase decisions and even when choosing which supermarket to shop at. That is why, Sabert believes all sustainability efforts are essential whether looking at making strides as a holistic approach down to the recyclability of your deli packaging.” DB