Package Deal

Convenience retailers turn to sustainable packaging to keep food and drinks fresh and warm.

Package Deal

January 2022   minute read

By: Pat Pape

When Jared Scheeler, CEO of The Hub convenience chain, opened his first store, he had branded foam cups made for  his fountain and coffee bar. “It’s uncommon for a single store to have their own branded cups,” he said. “We wanted to make our company look bigger than we were.”

Today, the North Dakota-based chain includes five stores, and the cup supply is getting a makeover. “Consumers are demanding more sustainable products, and we’ve elected to convert to paper cups as our existing stock runs out,” Scheeler said. “Paper products can be more expensive than foam depending on the type and quality of cups you buy. But paper cups don’t affect the quality of products we serve.”

The Hub chose the new cups because paper degrades much faster than foam, which can take decades to decompose. But the conversion took time. The Hub team examined many samples and insisted on having a single lid to fit every cup size. The final result was a thick paper cup with a java jacket.

“We didn’t carry java jackets [in the past], but now that paper cups are being used, we had to order them. On the bright side, that offered us an opportunity for increased branding for our stores,” said Scheeler, who is the 2021-2022 NACS chairman (see “Thinking Big” on page 40).

He likes the feedback he’s gotten so far about the change. “A thick paper cup seems like a high-end product and has a better look,” he said.

A thick paper cup seems like a high-end product and has a better look. 

PAPER? OR PLASTIC?

No one likes trash cluttering streets, parks and playgrounds. And who doesn’t cringe to think that 11 million metric tons of plastic are dumped in the ocean annually, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. 

The 2021 Global Buying Green Report, produced by metal-packaging company Trivium, found that 67% of consumers say it is important that products they purchase come in recyclable packages, and more than half (54%) consider sustainable packaging when selecting a product.

Shoppers ages 44 and younger are driving this trend. Among that age group, 83% say they are willing to pay more for sustainably packaged products, compared with all consumers (70%). That call for sustainable packaging is being heard by manufacturers and retailers.

The Coca-Cola Company is reducing its use of new plastic by 20% compared with 2018 and recently unveiled a prototype beverage bottle made from 100% plant-based plastic, excluding the cap and label, as part of its World Without Waste vision to make all of its packaging more sustainable. Nestlé says it will spend $2.1 billion to convert from virgin plastic packaging to foodgrade recycled products. Labatt USA has adopted photodegradable-plastic carrier rings for its six packs of beer that are designed to break down over time when exposed to UV light.

Kraft Heinz spent $1.2 billion to develop a 100% recyclable cap for its ketchup and sauce bottles. The caps will be rolled out worldwide starting next year, which means about one billion plastic caps can be recycled instead of being dumped in landfills.

Even state and municipal governments frown on single-use materials. Currently, eight states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont—have banned single-use plastic bags, and a New Jersey ban goes into effect in May. Several major cities have either banned plastic bags or require consumers to pay bag fees at the point of sale.

But when it comes to packaging waste, businesses get the blame. Research by Mintel found that 48% of consumers worldwide believe companies are responsible for increasing the amount of packaging that must be recycled. Only a quarter believe that responsibility lies with consumers and just a fifth with governments.

That may be because consumers have limited options when it comes to disposing of packaging in an environmentally friendly way. According to 2020 research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, companies report that just 65% of the plastic packaging they produce is reusable, recyclable or compostable.

Increased interest in sustainable packaging parallels the growth of foodservice among [c-store] retailers.

KEEPING FOOD JUST RIGHT

LK Packaging of Commerce, California, offers packaging with the convenience industry in mind.

“Increased interest in sustainable packaging parallels the growth of foodservice among [c-store] retailers,” said Glen Adamik, director of strategic marketing, LK Packaging. “We provide packaging to 16 of the top 25 biggest c-store brands and two of the top three players that have publicly committed themselves to more-sustainable packaging, like compostable bags and boxes.”

Most all food packaging offered by LK is sustainable, “which, for us, means it’s either recyclable, reusable or compostable,” said Matthew Banghart, director of food packaging, LK. “Our flexible packaging is most often the lesser carbon footprint choice over rigid options.”

The company offers grab-and-go packaging designed to be a turnkey branded solution for meals prepared locally or to order. Another line features cook-in bags and boxes that allow meals to be cooked inside the packaging.

“This gives operators a way to compete with foodservice establishments, deliveries or even grocery store meal kits,” said Banghart. “Both programs offer packaging that keeps the product fresh and warm during transport.”

One way to be sustainable and more practical in-store is to offer foodservice packaging with handles. “You’ll have less items to put into other bags, and your merchandise case will be perceptively full of reusable packaging,” said Adamik. “And customers can carry more items to the register easily.”

Multicompartment foodservice packaging options also are becoming prevalent, Banghart added. “Operators find that they enhance product appearance and keep food more secure during transport, and they allow the consumer to enjoy a meal nearly identical to the quality they’d enjoy on premise,” he said. “Many operators are gravitating toward a craft paper look that communicates something closer to nature.”

At Placon, a Madison, Wisconsin, packaging manufacturer, “promoting sustainability is a big part of our business,” said Kali Kinziger, associate product manager. “Our manufacturing process has no waste. We use all the materials we buy.”

While Placon can create customized packaging, most foodservice operators choose HomeFresh, the company’s stock packaging. “HomeFresh products can be filled with hot food and are freezer and microwave friendly,” she said.

A traditional white tub and clear lid are convenient, allow retailers to add a logo and let customers see the product inside. Plus, they store easily and can be reused. “And they are recyclable,” Kinziger added. “We only make things that are capable of being recycled unless otherwise specified by the customer.”

NEW BRAND, NEW BOXES

TXB Stores (Texas Born), based in Spicewood, Texas, recently began rebranding its stores, previously known as Kwik Chek. The change provided an opportunity to replace existing packaging with the kind of sustainable product consumers say they want.

“We’ve gotten away from foam as much as possible,” said Ben Hoffmeyer, vice president of marketing and merchandising, TXB. “We’ve moved to paper boxes for our chicken and tacos. All the sandwiches in our deli case used plastic clam shells, but we’ve moved to paper window bags. They keep the product just as fresh, and the bags can be used for both hot and cold products. Plus, we get to brand everything TXB, and we help the environment by leaving less of a carbon footprint.”

A few years ago, the c-store chain replaced its foam coffee cups with double-wall paper cups, and the retailer plans to tackle foam in the fountain area next. With current supply chain challenges, it may not be easy. It took TXB six months to receive the foodservice bags it had ordered.

“It was not about the components needed to manufacturer them,” said Hoffmeyer. “The manufacturer had labor issues that delayed the launch.”

But that doesn’t discourage TXB from planning more sustainable updates for its food service program. The company aims to move from plastic to paper bags at checkout, and “we’re looking at adding a TXB-branded aluminum drinking straw,” he said. “We want to help the planet out by using less straws, and we’re exploring paper straws for cold coffee where customers don’t need plastic since they’re going to consume the product quickly.” 

Pat Pape

Pat Pape

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer. See more of her articles at patpape.wordpress.com.

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