Amid increasing environmental concerns, bakers are transforming their packaging to be more eco-friendly. 

“Bread bags and film with recycled content is a key area of focus since many companies have announced goals to increase the amount of recycled content in their packaging, and there are some countries legislating for a minimum recycled content in plastic packaging,” explained Veronica Ataya, director of marketing and innovation at St. Johns Packaging.

In 2021, St. Johns launched a commercial bread bag incorporating 30% post-consumer recycled (PCR) content in the United Kingdom. Ms. Ataya said the company has recently worked with many North American bakeries and aims to have a commercial product in the United States market this year. 

“[The bags] are still recyclable, offer reductions in the use of fossil-based materials and lower the carbon footprint of the packaging,” she said. “Furthermore, the performance of these bags is very similar to that of traditional bags, minimizing the impact in the filling/bagging equipment.”

These PCR bags are likely a first step for bakeries looking to reduce their carbon footprint via packaging, Ms. Ataya said. But down the line, she predicted 100% carbon neutral bags to eventually emerge as both environmental regulations strengthen and bakeries follow the lead of other companies. Grupo Bimbo SAB de CV, Mexico City, for example, committed to producing net zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

Moving down the line, bread bag closures have become more sustainable as well. Kwik Lok introduced Fibre-Lok to the United States last year, its sustainable alternative to plastic bag closures. Fibre-Lok closures are composed of natural cellulose wood and are made with 100% PCR paper. The company also offers its Eco-Lok closures, made with up to 20% less fossil fuel-based ingredients and requiring up to 20% less greenhouse gasses to make. 

“We’re trying to help bakers come up with the best solution for them in both trying to reach their sustainability goals but at the same time, manage the bottom line,” said Karen Reed, global director of marketing and communications, Kwik Lok. 

Burford Corp., a Middleby Bakery company, has refined the use of plastic twist tie material, which can significantly decrease plastic usage, said Josh Hughes, sales account manager. 

More bakers are also requesting resealable tape closures, Mr. Atkins said. These closures are made from the same material as the bag and don’t need to be recycled separately.

Today’s packaging equipment can also eliminate the need for waste by extending shelf life. 

“Product shelf life is highly related with packaging; the less air contained in the bag (filtered air), the better,” said Louis-Bernard Meunier, chief customer officer at Rexfab Inc. 

While air is necessary to inflate the bag and insert product, some equipment, such as the GHD Hartmann 420 made in partnership with Rexfab, can vacuum the air out afterwards. 

“This helps minimize the risk of product contamination and requires less bag material, which translates in cost savings over the long run,” he said.

Bakers can promote sustainability by using less energy and labor as well, which can be achieved via energy-efficient machinery and the automation of labor-intensive tasks, noted Angela McDaniel, marketing and sales coordinator, Formost Fuji.

“The bagging machines and flowwrappers we offer have a lot of sustainable features that cut down on energy and reduce carbon footprint,” she said. “It’s easy to look at the material side because that’s what the consumer sees, and they don’t necessarily consider the sustainability of the packaging equipment itself.”

Making sustainable attainable 

The push for eco-friendly packaging is gaining, but obstacles remain before these materials truly break through and become commonplace. For example, regulations promoting or requiring the use of these materials are lacking in the United States, and the country’s poor recycling infrastructure means many recyclable products are still thrown away. But the biggest obstacle for bakers in using these materials is cost.

“It is difficult for the baker to spend the extra money it costs to get recyclable bags because they have to pass that on to the customer, and sometimes that’s a make or break for the customer on whether or not they’re going to pay more for that loaf of bread,” Ms. McDaniel said.

Because PCR bags are more expensive, Ms. Ataya recommended bakers start by using them with premium breads where consumers are willing to pay more. 

Consumer knowledge around recyclable materials is another challenge.

“You can’t tell a consumer it has PCR. You just need to say recycled content,” Ms. Ataya said. “The message has to be clear. You have to educate the consumer, so they know if they have to pay more, why they have to pay more.”

It’s critical bakers ensure sustainable bags can still hold up on the packaging line. Just because a bag looks the same doesn’t mean it will run the same. 

Dennis Gunnell, president of Formost Fuji, shared an example of a customer who replaced their bag with a more sustainable alternative but didn’t test the product beforehand. It wasn’t until after they purchased and began running the bags that they discovered 20% of them would split open on the line.  

“You just defeated your purpose and slowed your line down and caused all sorts of problems,” he emphasized. “Communication and getting it tested thoroughly is key to making sure it’ll function throughout the supply chain. We offer free testing in our lab for this reason.”

Thankfully, with testing, bakers can make the adjustments necessary to ensure sustainable bags run similarly to conventional ones. 

For closures, Mr. Hughes said, Burford’s Servo Tyer may require a relatively inexpensive kit when shifting to plastic twist tie material.

“However, once added, no adjustment is needed to run either standard or plastic twist material when switching between the two types, and new equipment can be fitted for this option when ordered so that it arrives ready to accept either type of material,” he said. 

Sustainability was the word in the industry a few years ago, Mr. Gunnell said, but it took a bit of a backseat as supply chain and labor disruptions took hold. But he sees the pendulum swinging back to the topic.

“As we get to the second half of 2023 and beginning of 2024, you’re going to see sustainability climb in importance again,” he said.

This article is an excerpt from the March 2023 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Sliced Bread Packaging, click here.