Creating smart packaging that appropriately protects and maintains food product quality is key to producing food in a sustainable manner.
By Dan Miller, group manager (packaging and applied research) and Chad Donicht, senior scientist (packaging), Hormel Foods R&D
When you think about producing food in a sustainable manner, packaging may not be the first thing that comes to mind, yet it is a key element in the food production process.
At Hormel Foods, making strides for reducing our packaging supports our culture of sustainability and corporate responsibility. We use more than 4,600 unique items to package and produce our products, including corrugated paperboard, labels, films, cans, plastic bags, displays, glass containers, metal closures and plastic closures. Approximately 80 percent of our product packaging by weight is recyclable and/or made from recycled materials.
As a consumer packaged goods company, packaging materials are a necessary part of our business. Our first set of environmental goals set the bar to reduce our packaging materials by four million pounds by 2011. Throughout the process, we assessed the long- and short-term impacts that the reduction efforts might have on the company and its stakeholders.
There was short-term risk involved in the decision to reduce packaging materials due to potentially negative impact on costs; however, we felt it was necessary to do as much as possible. We successfully exceeded our goal, achieving 4.29 million pounds in savings related to packaging materials.
Our new goal: to reach 25 million pounds by 2020.
Minimizing Packaging for Maximum Impact
Again, we use more than 4,600 unique items in our packaging, and the packaging group continually looks for ways to minimize packaging while still maintaining safe and high quality products. Creating smart packaging that appropriately protects and maintains food product quality is key to producing food in a sustainable manner.
To accomplish efforts, we created a team to capitalize on the innovation happening within the company and to leverage ideas and resources to make the most impact. While the team consists of a small group of employees, each participant has clear minimization goals to meet. Part of the charge is to identify their own projects and manage them from start to finish.
In 2011, each member of the packaging team was charged with identifying 500,000 pounds of materials savings on his/her own. Utilizing companywide resources – plants, operations, purchasing and even at the supplier level – the packaging team identified individual projects. In total, the team initiated more than 58 projects and successfully completed 33 during the fiscal year, with the remaining projects still in progress.
- Hormel Foods and a supplier identified a need to eliminate waste at the production facility for Hormel® Compleats® microwave meals. The new process implemented collected excess trim material from the trays and reprocessed it back into production. The change resulted in a reduction of one million pounds of solid waste to landfill for the remainder of the year, with more expected for the following full year of production.
- At our Farmer John facility in Vernon, Calif., a need was identified for new packaging material for ribs and other bone-in products. The team converted to a new, nonlaminated packaging material that was tougher, stronger and weighed less than the previous material. Removing the laminated layers resulted in a material reduction of 44,000 pounds.
Challenges: From Aesthetics to Stability
While we continue to experience success with these employee-initiated projects, there are significant challenges we continue face with projects that are still in progress. The most critical challenge: to make sure the new material/s perform accordingly. For example, whatever new material we decide to use, must provide:
- A barrier for freshness.
- Structural integrity: The new material must protect the product from the time it is made until it is consumed.
- Ease of manufacturing: As many of the materials run on equipment, the efficiencies of manufacturing are important.
- Aesthetics: Many times, the aesthetics of the package is a determining factor for purchase. It is important that the new materials used still provide attributes that aid the aesthetics.
Across the organization, we are aiming for continuous improvement to help us be as environmentally sustainable as possible: from promoting behavior changes to save energy and water to investing in equipment that makes our plants more sustainable. One of our ongoing efforts is our annual Environmental Sustainability Best of the Best competition, where all employees are asked to submit a project they worked on that focused on reducing the environmental impact of their workplace.
Each year, judges look at the scope of the project along with goal setting, teamwork, problem solving and the overall achievement. Last year, these efforts resulted in a total reduction of 3,000 tons of solid waste, 203 million gallons of water, 11,900 MMBtu of natural gas and 3,890,000 kWh of electricity.
We take our role in producing sustainable food very seriously, standing by our peers and partners in the food supply chain to do the same. As a major food manufacturer, we understand the importance of World Food Day. Consumers around the world enjoy our products and, as we reduce our packaging, our impact and reach only grows stronger. We’re committed to building a sustainable future.
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About the Authors:
Dan Miller is currently group manager (packaging and applied research) at the Hormel Foods R&D facility in Austin, Minn. Miller graduated from the University of Wisconsin - Stout in 1991 with a bachelor of science degree in packaging engineering. He has worked at Hormel Foods for 21 years and has held various positions including associate package scientist, packaging scientist, senior scientist as well as development leader of packaging and manager of packaging, all within research and development.
Chad Donicht is currently senior scientist (packaging) at the Hormel Foods R&D facility in Austin,Minn. In May 2004, he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in packaging from the University of Wisconsin – Stout with a minor in quality management. Donicht has worked at Hormel Foods in the R&D packaging development group for eight years.