• Materials, Retail, Business

Defining what constitutes good packaging requires a broader view on material impacts

Natha Dempsey, President of Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI), sheds light on the possibilities that can lead to better sustainability by taking a material inclusive stance on foodservice packaging.  By understanding the purpose of the packaging from its journey through the supply chain to its end-of-life, users of foodservice packaging are in a better position to select materials that contribute to the circular food economy. 

“Often, I hear statements such as, ‘This packaging material is bad, and we should limit its use’, which usually come from consumers who are concerned about the environment. However, from a professional and personal standpoint, I don’t believe that a material is inherently good or bad,” argues Natha Dempsey, President of Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI). “When taken in the context of its function, food packaging can be extremely beneficial in reducing waste and preserving value.”

From Dempsey’s perspective, it comes down to education and communication about the purpose of the product, and the benefits it provides.

“Measuring the entire impact of the product in relation to the benefits gained from its function captures the nature of sustainability.”

“As a material neutral organization, we are not encumbered by the ‘material wars’ that sometimes occur,” maintains Dempsey. “We see the value in all products, and we acknowledge that every option has benefits and consequences. A better starting point is to measure the entire impact of the product in relation to benefits gained from its functions. In my opinion, this captures the nature of sustainability – how your attributes and detriments are defined.”

FPI is method agnostic in terms of material recovery, according to Dempsey, where the goal is to gain the best use possible for the foodservice packaging that operators choose.

When approaching new decisions, whether it is a national packaging rollout or considering a new material, Dempsey suggests asking about the goal – always. “What does your consumer want, and how does it represent the strategy of your brand as a whole? Considering the importance of these topics provide our operators with a clearer plan to act sustainably.”

Progress requires dialogue across players in the industry

The role of FPI, Dempsey explains, is to facilitate and connect players within the foodservice packaging ecosystem and to provide a legal forum through which competitors can assemble and openly discuss issues affecting the industry without antitrust concerns. 

“As a trade association, we are unique in that our focus lies within foodservice packaging. Although we do not engage in manufacturing activities, we are well informed about industry practices and standards through our members. This creates a diverse perspective that allows us to foster a constructive environment where the entire industry benefits,” Dempsey adds. “We provide our services to approximately 90 percent of the industry and maintain strong representation in the manufacturing space, which enables us to communicate across the supply chain in an effectual way.”

Due to her close proximity to the industry, Dempsey explains, she is acutely aware of the challenges being faced and is in a position to best address these issues.

“The greatest challenge confronting us requires being able to keep the ship moving in the right direction,” expresses Dempsey. “Our operators are facing supply chain shortages exacerbated by COVID-19, in addition to legislative pressures, that threaten to restrict some types of foodservice packaging products. Despite this we remain committed to our goals, where we continue to innovate and contribute to the circular economy through recycling and composting programs for foodservice packaging.”

Activating consumer participation contributes to circular economy

“Imagine this scenario: You have a takeaway cup that follows you from the restaurant to your car, and eventually to your home, at which point it will be disposed of. The primary aim is to get the cup in the recycling bin, as that’s the best way of capturing it,” emphasizes Dempsey. “If this is the case, then how do we mobilize communities to actively participate in foodservice packaging recycling?”

To achieve this goal, Dempsey points out, requires engaging already existing actors and extensive education and communication.

“We have to start with an end market. There needs to be a buyer for the recovered material, the resources to convert it, and the willingness of recycling facilities and composters, as well as the participation of consumers to place items in the right bin. It is a lengthy and time-consuming process, but necessary to achieving our circularity goals.”

This article is part of a series where different stakeholders discuss how fit for purpose packaging is essential for sustainable food systems. The articles are published ahead of our virtual roundtable.

For more information about Think Circle, including details on upcoming events, please sign up for our newsletter here.