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Albany goes biodegradable

IT’s probably safe to assume that every leading FMCG player in the country is evaluating its options to act and look ‘greener’ when it comes to packaging. Trumping the market though, is the biggest player, Tiger Brands, that has just completed a massive and complex project to convert it biggest brand by value, Albany bread, to biodegradable bags, ground-breaking new packaging that hit local supermarket shelves in early April.

‘This represents a notable and exciting development for Tiger Brands, and is the realisation of our corporate commitment to sustainability and reducing our environmental footprint,’ comments Meghan Draddy, packaging development manager (Cereals, Milling & Baking). ‘It’s a wonderful opportunity for Tiger to boost and add value to the Albany brand – and to give back something at the same time.’

Meghan stresses, too, that Tiger is absorbing the nominal extra cost as part of its social responsibility efforts. ‘We simply have to do our bit – and considering we use some 500 million bags a year, the amount of plastic our product is sending to landfill is enormous. We recognised that we have to take ownership of and solve this problem. Recycling such flimsy film is not viable from a collection aspect and so converting to biodegradable packaging is the optimal answer.’

Albany has by far the biggest share of the country’s national bread market, with 12 major bread plants producing the Albany Superior, Olde Cape, D’light and Everyday ranges. Not surprisingly, Albany bread is the Tiger group’s biggest user of packaging.

A pioneering project of this magnitude involved months of discussion, planning, development and degradation trials, and has taken more than a year since its mooting to become a reality. For Meghan and the Albany marketing team, the first box to tick was to determine whether, in fact, this move would be valued by consumers.

Tiger Brands has for many years used immersion market research techniques where subjects are minutely observed and interviewed in their work or home environments to explore the issues that surround and contribute to a brand’s performance.

‘From this we ascertained that environmental issues are a concern for people across all LSM bands – contrary to common perception, or misconception, they are by no means only in the mindset of affluent or highly-educated consumers,’ Meghan notes. ‘With bread a universal staple in this country, we’re confident that this development will be warmly received by all consumers.’

The next stage of the project was to work with long-standing packaging partners to find the right biodegradable solution. After much research into the many varied technologies that are available, it was decided to link with Symphony Environmental, whose d2w or ‘degrade to water’ additive that creates oxo-biodegradable plastic comes with a proven, globally-recognised track record (see side story).

Valuable converting partnerships

Meghan has high praise for the support and input of Albany’s three flexible packaging suppliers in coming to this green party – Tropic Plastic & Packaging, East Rand Plastics (a member of the Astrapak group) and Nampak Flexible.

East Rand Plastics’ sales director, Rod Smith, stresses his company’s involvement in biodegradable technology, having acted as Symphony’s agent throughout Africa and the Indian Ocean islands since 2004.

‘We have been manufacturing biodegradable refuse bags with success over the past four years – and we are delighted to take this know-how and support Tiger Brands in this project,’ he notes. ‘Bread branding, much assisted by better printing options for packaging, has evolved fairly dramatically in recent years and this step by Albany is a positive development for Tiger, for ourselves and for the public at large.’

He adds that many FMCG companies are investigating ‘greener’ options for their packaging and while, very keen and interested, tend mostly to be put off by the added cost: ‘Perhaps with Albany now taking the lead, more will follow. It really is the ethical way to go, and the environmental pressures are not going away.’

Tropic Plastic & Packaging, as readers will have read recently (PPM, Festive issue 2007), is the country’s leading manufacturer of wicketed bread bags and principal supplier to Albany. The company has a deserved reputation as a specialist and innovator in this arena and was the first to introduce the mitred bag that, with a 45º cut at bottom of bags presents a neater and tighter finished pack.

‘We’ve made it our mission to keep ahead in the bread industry; we have much technical and operational expertise and have installed the very best wicketing machinery from Hudson-Sharp,’ comments Mohamed Timol, Tropic’s operations director. ‘This Albany initiative is extremely exciting and we’re proud to be key partners with Tiger in making it happen.’

Tropic has developed two technically-advanced films that are being used for Albany’s breads and which are now extruded with the d2w additive: Tropithene, an opaque film which has a luxurious texture and finish and which is used exclusively by Tiger to differentiate Albany’s Olde Cape range of breads; and Tropistar which, for PE film, has particularly glass-clear properties and is thus ideal for bread bags. In fact, Meghan points out that an initial teething problem revolved around clarity of the d2w bags, a challenge which she credits Tropic’s Mo Timol and Symphony’s George Fee in resolving.

Nampak Flexibles, another in this project triumvirate, took a major and measured move into the bread market in 2004. According to Robin Moore, MD of the division, it has invested over R22-million in technology, including seven Hudson-Sharp wicketers and a Carint CI eight-colour press, all installed at its Meadowbrook, Jo’burg, factory.

‘Apart from an impressive fleet of machinery, we also bought in all-important human skills to ensure the quality of our extrusion process and bag-making. This growing arm of our business – we now have 30% market share – is also nurtured by a dedicated sales and support network,’ Robin says.

On the Albany project specifically, he believes this initiative is both timely and admirable: ‘Albany is our biggest customer and it has been a great project to work on – all parties in the packaging supply chain must face up to the environmental challenges. Hat’s off to Albany for taking the lead.’

Shelf life and end life

An important aspect of d2w’s application is that the degradation process can be controlled via the use of inhibitors. It was an imperative for Albany, Meghan stresses, that the bags had good storage characteristics.

‘We undertook numerous trials, especially to prove that the bags would last unblemished in storage. Understandably, for reasons of economy we order in significant quantities and usually have several months’ worth of packaging to hand at our plants. We can’t allow any degradation in store,’ she explains.

After lengthy testing, the bags passed muster on all parameters with no compatibility or tainting issues, maintaining both their integrity and tensile strength. ‘We estimate an overall cradle-to-grave life-span of two years. In ideal weathering conditions, such as exposure to UV light and rain, the bags would last for a year, but we gauge they will degrade in 12 to 18 months in landfill,’ says Meghan.

Albany intends making an appropriate noise about its good work, and is rolling out a comprehensive marketing campaign that involves an environmental programme through schools, extensive PR and even TV advertising.

Ultimately, concludes Meghan, the project has given rise to a wealth of new knowledge within Tiger: ‘We will endeavour to pass on all we’ve learnt to other brands within the group. It has been an amazing and enlightening exercise.’

The wonders of ‘d2w’

‘TIGER Brands’ responsible decision to convert their bags to oxo-biodegradable paves a path for others to follow, and is set to remove up to 3 000 tons every year of waste and litter from the environment,’ comments George Fee, who heads up the local arm of UK-based Symphony Environmental, supplier of the d2w (degrade to water) technology that will convert Albany’s PE bags to their fundamental constituents.

Symphony, present in over 50 countries, claims to be the world leader in oxo-biodegradable additives, and supplies many household names with a range of d2w blends specifically engineered for their requirements. Tiger Brands, George notes, is now in the good company of Wal-Mart (the world’s largest retailer), Sonae (Portugal’s biggest supermarket group), and the British Co-Op that uses oxo-bio plastic for everything from bread, to frozen food, to carrier bags.

‘We’re delighted to have been able to partner Tiger Brands in this forward-thinking initiative; to assist it in becoming the first national food company in South Africa to take positive steps to eliminate plastic waste caused by their commercial operations,’ he says. ‘Plastic bread bags that would normally still be around polluting the planet long after those consuming the contents have passed to the great hereafter, will now degrade and biodegrade in a short time scale, leaving no methane, fragments or residues.’

George comments that of all the plastic ever made since its development in the early 1900s, despite recycling, incineration and so on, over 90% is still somewhere on the planet. In contrast, of the plastic made using d2w up to 2004, all has completely disappeared. ‘Oxo-bio plastic does not require sunlight or anything other than the presence of oxygen to degrade, followed by complete bio-assimilation. In addition, only oxo-bio can be engineered at extrusion stage to have a controlled degradation period and maintain its mechanical and physical characteristics throughout its useful life,’ he says.

So how does it work?

PE and PP polymers are composed of hydrocarbons, comprising small units bonded into long chains. These chains’ high molecular weight give rise to plastics’ useful qualities of low mass, strength and imperviousness. Symphony’s d2w acts on the carbon bonds, shortening the chains, meaning the material effectively ceases to be plastic and becomes a food source for microbes. Once the process is complete, water, carbon dioxide and biomass are all that remains.

On the issue of biodegradation in the largely anaerobic environment of a landfill, George explains that, along with anaerobic zones there are aerobic zones where oxygen is trapped during compaction and daily soil cover: ‘The opportunity is then there for this oxygen and any partially degraded plastic to come together when the landfill upper surfaces are disturbed. The oxo part of oxo-biodegradation is initiated at the time of extrusion of the plastic and results in scission of the carbon-carbon bonds and embrittlement and fragmentation due to the reduction of its molecular weight, which at sub 40 000 daltons is no longer plastic as we know it. At this stage the fragments acquire a “wetted” surface and become accessible to micro-organisms, resulting in bio-assimilation into water, CO2 and biomass. Blends of d2w are engineered depending on the end customer requirements, with some highly aggressive blends causing fragmentation in only a few weeks and rapid molecular weight reduction and bio-assimilation in the upper regions of the landfills.’

Of course, he adds, much more important than the thin plastic film that goes into landfills, is the substantial litter and wind-blown plastics in rivers, fields, drains and the stomachs of birds and wildlife, which d2w almost totally eliminates.

As d2w can be used with existing machinery, there’s no need to interrupt the supply chain and, unlike starch-based or hydro-degradable plastics, there is little on-cost.

First published in PACKAGiNG & Print Media Magazine, Aprill 2008, written by Brenda Neall

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