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Unpacking bioplastics for food supplement brands—podcast

Audio-Unpacking bioplastics for food supplement brands—podcast

The push for sustainable packaging alternatives to replace plastic counterparts.

Plastic remains the packaging material of choice across the food and nutrition industry thanks to its cost effective, shelf stable, durable and variable associations. However, huge carbon footprints and waste challenges throughout the plastic lifecycle have put pressure on multiple industries to consider packaging alternatives that work toward overcoming the climate and environmental crisis.

In this Vitafoods Insights podcast, Ulla Hahn of Sanner discusses sustainable packaging for nutraceutical brands and provides a framework of the bioplastic opportunity. Since joining Sanner in 1995, Ulla has worked across quality management, packaging development, innovation management and product management, where she gained a wealth of expertise in desiccant and effervescent packaging development. Since 2017, she has been the head of product management and leads the company’s bio-based packaging development.

Tune in to hear more about:

  • How food supplement brands currently contribute to the plastic crisis
  • The essential transition needed to sustainable packaging alternatives that protect future environment
  • A definition of bioplastics, composition and the opportunity for finished products
  • Material properties and key considerations around moisture, shelf life and product protection


Ulla Hahn
Head of product management at Sanner


Vitafoods Insights Podcast

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Podcast Trasncript:

Vitafoods Insights: 00:05 Welcome to the Vitafoods Insights podcast. Join us as we explore the latest science innovation, helping the global health and nutrition industry connect, develop and progress. Today’s host is Charlotte Bastiaanse, editor.

Charlotte: 00:22 Hi and thank you for tuning in to another Vitafoods Insights podcast. I'm joined today by Ulla Hahn, who is team leader Product Management at Sanner where she's in charge of biobased packaging development. Sanner is a packaging partner specialising in sustainable and alternative packaging solutions for nutraceutical brands. But I'm actually going to hand over to Ulla: could you please tell us a little bit more about you and Sanner, and how you came to be in the role you are?

Ulla: 00:46 Hi, thank you Charlotte. It's a pleasure for me to be here. And as you said, my name is Ulla Hahn and I'm responsible for the product management and patent management at Sanner here in the headquarter, in Germany, since about four years now. And I've been with Sanner for a very long time. So, after all, it has been more than 25 years now. I found my way into the product management by different working areas. So long time ago, I studied material science, and I started my career in the quality management. And later then I contributed my expertise in product development and innovation management. And finally, I arrived in product management about 10 years ago now. For some time now I have been intensively involved in that topic of sustainability and the packaging industry. And I'm one of the driving forces at Sanner when it comes to making our packaging more sustainable. But perhaps before we jump right in, Charlie, let me say first a few words about Sanner at all. So, the headquarter, I told you is in Germany, here in Bensheim, near Frankfurt, in the middle of Germany. And we produce around about 4 billion plastic parts a year. So mainly packaging for pharma and healthcare and medtech industry. So, the upcoming years Sanner is focusing on the development of smart packaging and medical devices, and also customised products with strong added value. And overall achieve more sustainability, which leads us perfectly to today's topic: the sustainable packaging

Charlotte: 02:33 Absolutely. Thanks for that great introduction, Ulla, it's great to have you on the podcast. As you said, today's topic is all about sustainable packaging. And I'm really excited to get into this discussion on bioplastics and alternative packaging solutions for nutraceutical brands. I think many industries, including our own, are really faced with an ongoing environmental crisis. And when we consider packaging, for food and nutrition, and pharma brands, they really are relying at the moment quite heavily on plastic for their packaging needs. And I think that's easy enough to understand why it's quite a low-cost solution: it's lightweight for transportation, it's got quite long-lasting shelf life, and as a material it's extremely versatile. So, understandable to see why brands are turning to it. But plastic production obviously does also contribute quite significantly to carbon footprints. And we're also faced with an ongoing challenge of waste and pollution management at the end of that customer journey. I think now, also, with sustainability at the forefront of customer and consumer minds and packaging really contributing so hugely to the overall carbon footprints of finished products. It's really important that the industry is trying to think about the next steps forward to tackle some of these greater issues around climate change and waste. The plastic crisis for food supplements specifically, Ulla, let's start there, how does the food supplements or nutraceutical sector contribute here? And do you have any data or metrics that you're able to share with us that can really measure that out for our listeners?

Ulla: 04:03 Let's start perhaps with the overall production of plastic worldwide. This is about over 400 million tonnes every year. And packaging makes up more than a third of all the plastic produced. This includes already the packaging in healthcare and nutraceutical industries. And when we talk about plastic packaging, I think we have to look on the two separate aspects you mentioned before Charlie of the actual discussion. So, plastics define the way we live today. They improve the quality of your life, of millions of people across the globe by making our lives easier, safer, more enjoyable in all areas. So, plastic packaging provides a lot of benefits: durable, keep the product clean and away from degradation and so on. There's a long list of advantages. But on the other hand, plastic causes a lot of disadvantages as well. We all know the waste problems around the world. So, let's give me an example of the household waste in Europe, which is collected. This is approximately 30 million tonnes per year, we have to consider this plastic waste counts around about 12%, paper around 18%, and kitchen waste is around 25%. So, these are just rough numbers on the waste side here. But, nevertheless, in my opinion, we all have a responsibility towards our planet. Every individual and every company, especially a thriving company like Sanner, which produces plastic packaging for food supplements and nutraceuticals, I think, we still must look for alternatives wherever the properties of packaging content allow this.  One possibility could be the use of bio-based plastics, especially concerning the co2 emissions. The alternative use of glass metal or paper does not result in co2 savings. In fact, the opposite is true: co2 emissions would be much higher if plastics were replaced by these materials. So, for example, the mass of packaging would be increased by the factor of 3.6, or the energy consumption would be at least more than doubled. And greenhouse gas emissions would be increased around about 60 million tonnes of co2 per year. So, just to make a comparison here, a flight from Berlin to Majorca and back releases as much co2 as the emissions of the production of plastic packaging in 11 years. So, another alternative materials, for example, bio based plastics are therefore trending because they save co2 emissions at this point.

Charlotte: 07:01 Thanks, Ulla, you've mentioned some really interesting metrics and measurements there around some of the gas emissions as well as household waste. I think companies are as responsible as individual consumers for overcoming this issue of waste and harmful gas emissions, so thank you for highlighting that out. But let's hone in a little bit more on the brand side of things, why do brands need to consider transitioning to sustainable packaging alternatives for, not only the consumer, but also environmental protection?

Ulla: 07:32 Yeah, there are several reasons. One is definitely the limited fossil resources. As mentioned, another important fact are the co2 emissions we produce. Let's give you a concrete example. We at Sanner, took, for example, a classic effervescent tube that you can buy anywhere in the stores, and we calculated the emissions. And to do this correctly, we have chosen the so-called cradle to gate approach for the calculation. That means that the emissions from the material itself, the procurement, transport, and the production, our house, and the packaging of our packaging, virtually from the cradle to the factory gate were taking into account. And this is very important to know because it's also a point that, according to the Kyoto Protocol, certain greenhouse gases must be considered in such a calculation. So, not only the co2 emissions are included in that, also methane or nitrogen oxide, much more of these greenhouse gases are included there. And this holistic approach is then expressed in the so called co2 equivalent. To make a long story short, for the sake of simplicity, one speaks only of the co2 emissions, but it means always greenhouse gases at all. The result of our carbon footprint calculation was very remarkable. So, first of all, we found out that the main cause of greenhouse gas emissions is actually the raw material itself. Approximately 85% of the emissions arise during the procurement and manufacturing of the plastic. The production of the packaging itself does not even make up 8% of total emission. That means that the basis on which the plastic is manufactured is quite significant. And overall, we can save around 15% co2 equivalent if we take the bio-based version of effervescent tube packaging. That may not sound like a lot of at first, but that's more than seven tonnes each year of co2 per 1 million effervescent tube.

Charlotte: 09:55 Thanks Ulla, that's a really interesting comparison. So, thank you for highlighting that to our audience. So, we've spoken a lot about some of the harm that's caused through plastic and some of these more kind of conventional packaging solutions, that where you really are an expertise in bio plastics. So, I'd love for you to tell us a little bit more about what bio plastics are, how they're defined, and also how nutraceutical brands can understand the opportunity for packaging their finished products.

Ulla: 10:24 To your first part of the question, what are bio plastics? That's a really important question, because there is no bio plastics as a whole. So, the right term is bio polymers that at first, and it's a generic term for different types of plastic. Bio plastics basically describes two different facts. On the one hand, it is about the properties of the plastic, whether they are for example, biodegradable, or they are not. And on the other hand, the origin of the materials, so whether they are made from renewable resources, or they're made from petroleum. As you can imagine, biodegradable plastics have the property to being transformed by microorganisms: they degrade into natural substances, so water, carbon dioxide, salts and biomass. That has nothing to do with the raw material these plastics are made from. Biodegradable plastics can be petroleum based, as well as bio based- they are both. And then on the other side, there is the distinction from which raw material the plastics were made. If they were made from renewable raw materials, they are so called bio-based plastics, that's the right term at this point here. And they are made largely or even entirely from renewable raw materials, the term biobased says the origin the material from which the plastics are made. This does not necessarily mean that the plastics are also biodegradable. And today, the bio-based plastics consists of raw materials such as corn starch, sugarcane, cellulose grass, much more. Also, lignocellulose, this is a waste product from wood production, for example. And these bio-based plastics can have the same properties in terms of durability, strength and elasticity, like their brothers and sisters made from petroleum. The quantities of these materials are still very small, but nevertheless, I'm sure they will grow in future. In the context of bio-based plastics, there is often discussed that they compete with food production. And this aspect, I think, should not be hidden. I think that's really a very important aspect, if not even the most one in the entire discussion. Sugar cane is probably the most widely used plant for biobased PE. This is also one of the materials that we use at Sanner. It is also important for me to point out this fact: today, the world agriculture area is about 5 billion hectares, and 97% is used for pasture and growing fruit, just less than 1 million hectares are used for growing renewable raw materials for the production of bio based products. So, this correspondence to less than 0.02% of the world's agricultural area at the moment. But from my point of view, the challenge for the future is to further develop the production, processing and marketing structures along the entire value chain in such a way that the balance is achieved between economic efficiency and security of supply. That's the way we have to deal with this topic, I think.

Charlotte: 14:03 Thanks. That was a great overview of bioplastics. And thank you for sharing that information about the manufacturing process all the way down to farming for raw materials and some of these concerns around the longevity of the supply chain. I think there's a really important point you made. Ulla, so, you've given us this framework of bio plastics and in your role, you're obviously a specialist in alternative packaging as well. What are some new materials that do offer strong potential for packaging purposes? And could you highlight some top level benefits and challenges of each of those types of materials that you think are quite prominent that brands need to consider, you know, including things like shelf life potential stability, costing? we'd love to hear a bit about that, from your perspective.

Ulla: 14:47 The nutraceutical brands are naturally fuelled an increasing pressure from consumer around the big issue of sustainability and products that promote wellbeing and wellness are in particular focus. So, packaging is the consumers first point of contact with a product at the point of sale and therefore, particularly suited to fulfil the desire for more sustainable product and its packaging. I think saving oil as a resource, so to say, on the one hand and emitting fewer co2 emissions on the other hand, there are really strong arguments for customers. So, when it comes to the goal of primary packaging, product protection into guarantees certain shelf life of the product is the biggest thing we have to achieve. How to do this? so, to guarantee shelf life and product production, this depends on specific material properties, for example, which water vapour barrier the packaging provides for moisture sensitive content for example. Also processability and process reliability are very important aspects just as regulatory requirements for food and pharma packaging for example. And at this point, the so called 'drop in solutions' are particularly interesting. So, these bio-based plastics can be used and processed in the same way as full cell plastics. We at Sanner have already implemented a number of solutions for our packaging. And the performance of the bio-based packaging has to be at least equivalent to the conventional packaging, that was also a target for our effervescent tube packaging development. For example, the tightness is an important point, the closure and the tube must have a perfect fit to provide the optimal sealing properties, not to forget to consumer convenient, it has to be the same. So, the opening and closing forces has to be almost identical. So, also different decoration options are needed. The biobased variants can be printed or decorated using the IML technologies and they can be filled on existing filling lines at a tablet producer which is also an essential aspect. But coming back to the shelf life aspect you asked for, as we mentioned earlier, the properties of bio-based material topic differ from those of their oil-based brothers and sisters. With a Sanner bio-based product line, we have developed a portfolio which includes this important sustainability aspect as well. We are increasing religious shelf life. So at the Sanner, bio base tubes have an approximately 40% higher water vapour barrier. That means that the content can be stored much longer. So, the shelf life of an effervescent tablet, for example, can be increased from 24 months to 33 months.

Charlotte: 17:53 Thank you so much for that overview and for highlighting some of those really key manufacturing considerations. I know that Sanner has been quite active lately in developing packaging solutions specifically for CBD products. Could you tell us a little bit about that? How do bioplastics have an impact on CBD?

Ulla: 18:11 Yeah, indeed, bio-based plastics fits very well for CBD products. So, the issue of sustainability is really high on the agenda typically for these customers. So, the packaging, which is made from renewable resources has a good performance I mentioned before. For example, the tightness and barrier properties to protect cannabis flowers, for example, and other dosage forms are really they're very good. So especially when it also comes to integrated desiccant to keep right climate into the container, there is a very well fit of bio-based plastics for all these products in the CBD and cannabis surrounding.

Charlotte: 18:53 Thanks Ulla. We've spoken quite a lot about the opportunity here for sustainable packaging and no specifically I've looked at this opportunity around bio plastics. When we consider this product getting all the way down to the consumer, is there a noticeable difference of biobased packaging to the consumer? And additionally How are some of these materials correctly disposed of, or recycled to minimise waste? and you know, what is opportunity for brands to tell that story and involve the consumer in overcoming some of these key challenges around waste management climate change greenhouse gas emissions?

Ulla: 19:29 Yeah, so the disposal is also a point here, but overall, first, the consumer cannot tell whether the packaging is a conventional oil based one or a bio based one. So, there are no significant differences in opening behaviour in shape, in touch, and feel something like this. So, nothing changes for the consumer in this way. And, also nothing changes when it comes to disposal. So as before, the bio base tube with the cap can be disposed in a waste bin for plastics. The Sanner bio-based packaging, for example, has a very good recyclability of approximately 90%. And it will be integrated into the existing recycling streams for PE, which is very common. In Europe, most of the EU is recycled and also these bio based versions can be recycled in this existing recycling stream, and that's really a big advantage. So, the possibility to recycle and to save fossil resources is one of the most important features when it comes to the issue of sustainability. And at least, the using of bio based packaging is a distinctive feature at a point of sale. I mentioned a little bit before. So, the young generation and many other consumers are more sensitive concerning what they are buy and they use. So, packaging for nutraceuticals made from bio based plastics is really a strong argument for them.

Charlotte: 21:05 Ulla, thank you so much for all of the insights that you have shared with us today and your overview of the reality that we can create around sustainable and alternative packaging specifically for nutraceutical brands. It's been such a pleasure having you on this podcast and your insights have been extremely valuable. So thank you so much for joining me and for delivering this really key information to our audience.

Ulla: 21:27 Thank you very much, Charlie. It was a pleasure to be with you here and to hopefully answer a few of your questions regarding this sustainability packaging topics. Thank you very much.