Sustainable thermal packaging solutions for your business

28 February 2024, 12:00 PM
  • Consumers don’t just have an eye on the sustainability of the food and drink they buy – they're seeking better solutions from the packaging it arrives in too
Sustainable thermal packaging solutions for your business

The thermal packaging sector is heating up. With consumer interest in frozen food and premium prepared meals soaring, comes the demand for cost-effective solutions that will keep these products at their very best, while being mindful of the environment.

Fast-paced work is going on behind the scenes, with industry leaders investing in the very latest technology when it comes to materials, their efficacy, and their sustainability – through NPD that focusses on reducing the use of virgin plastics, while innovating with recyclable materials such as card.

Four experts in this field are Sorbafreeze, Hydropac, Icertech and Ranpak.

Sorbafreeze is the temperature-controlled division of Pitreavie Packaging, providing insulated boxes, ice packs and shipping solutions.

Hydropac is renowned for its temperature-controlled packaging, and for super strong ice packs that will withstand up to 200kg without bursting. It’s also expert in seal through liquid techology, which allows for more accurate filling and less leakage, while using less material.

Family-run Icertech shifted its focus in 2012 from purely pharmaceutical solutions, to the food market, offering a high level of bespoke service with its ice packs and insulated boxes.

And Ranpak specialises in eco-friendly, recyclable paper-based void fill, cushioning, wrapping and cold chain shipping solutions.

A growing demand

Each of these three companies say they experienced strong growth during Covid, which has continued beyond the height of the pandemic, where the demand for at-home dining options boomed.

“We saw a huge increase in business because of Covid,” says Alex Jackson of Icertech. “There was a mass of people ordering food online. That period was very busy for us and we picked up a lot of customers. But we’ve managed to retain them all. It’s a thriving industry, with lots of enquiries.”

During the pandemic “many businesses came to Sorbafreeze for guidance on not just chilled packaging, but the logistics and practicalities of setting up an online food delivery business,” says business unit director Michelle Ottolini.

“Although the Covid pandemic presented a lot of challenges, it was incredibly encouraging to see so many food and drink businesses diversify and make the leap to ecommerce,” Michelle adds. “Even more encouraging was the number of businesses across the UK and internationally reaching out to us, a Scottish-based manufacturer, and seeking our support during a pivotal time in their trading. During the Covid pandemic we saw revenue double from insulative packaging solutions.”

Trusting the experts

It might be tempting, especially if you’re a start-up, to cut corners when it comes to packaging. But this could prove a false economy. Without the support and expertise of professionals, can you really be assured your products will arrive undamaged, and still frozen or chilled?

Packaging is “not a complicated thing”, says Alex. “But if you’re new, there’s lot of things to think about. When customers come to us we can run through different scenarios with them, give them the right information, and recommend the best solutions.”

“That consultancy period matters,” adds her colleague Simon Morris. “We’ve spoken to thousands and thousands of customers about their needs, so there’s a good chance new customers will be looking for an application we’ve seen before. This saves them time, and gives them the most suitable solution.”

“Most of ours are quite cost effective when you break them down with the customers. Often they find we’re not as expensive as they think we might be,” says Alex.

The value of using a professional company directly, cannot be underestimated, agrees Rebecca Hailstone of Hydropac, which has the facilities to simulate extreme conditions, to fully test the capabilities of all its products. “We have seen weather around 40C in the UK, and we have the systems to test against that,” she explains. “We’ve tested all our packaging and ice packs, and we can prove that they work!”

Choosing the right packaging for your product is as important as selecting your ingredients, says Michelle. “Consumers have come to expect the convenience of a doorstep delivery option from their favourite meal kit producers, farm shops, delis, butchers and fishmongers. Temperature-controlled packaging allows businesses to offer the same quality of food traditionally purchased in a restaurant or retail environment direct to consumer. With the revenue of meal kits in the UK expected to grow by over 47% by 2027, the insulative packaging sector will also anticipate growth.”

The performance of packaging has a direct impact on the quality of goods received by consumers says Michelle, adding that “while producers remain uncertain in the courier network, it’s important that shipping solutions maintain product integrity, prevent spoilage, and ensure temperature-sensitive goods arrive with your customer in pristine condition.”

The technology implemented by specialist packaging businesses can reassure producers the longevity of their food will not be compromised, says Rebecca. “It means at the end the product will still be the correct temperature, and will still be able to be used and consumed.” Professional packaging companies, she expands, are also looking to “use the correct amount for shipping” which can help to reduce costs.

Driving innovation in sustainability

There’s a lot of talk in retail and food production about industry having to ‘catch up’ to enable producers to provide sustainable packaging solutions to their customers. These changes and innovations are rapidly happening across the landscape.

Sorbafreeze, for instance, has been working with environmental consultants, Mabbet, to develop a 10-year sustainability strategy, taking into account the sourcing of materials, reducing waste, and reducing carbon footprint. “The strategy aligns people, product and planet, and aims to work with employers, customers and supply chain to deliver a positive environmental impact,” Michelle explains.

“Producers,” she says, “are under increasing pressure and UK government legislation to minimise their impact.” The Sorbafreeze team has developed a temperature-controlled packaging range that can be fully kerbside recycled, helping businesses to reduce their waste, and helping the end consumer to recycle the packaging at home with ease.

“As a team, we’re passionate about creating a positive environmental contribution. We’ve always listened to our customers’ challenges, needs and desires to help shape our product range over the years,” Michelle continues. “With the impact of global warming so prevalent, we’re seeing a genuine interest and growing demand for fully kerbside recyclable packaging. We’ve recognised the need to take action now to minimise waste and increase recycling.”

Rebecca says Hydropac has listened to its customer base and is “always thinking of new ways to reduce the amount of non-recyclable materials we use.”

The brand’s most eco-friendly shipping system is EnviroCool, which is made of up to 30% recycled material, and is fully recyclable by all local council collections. The moisture-resistant box, with a Kraft paper outer, is made with FSC paper, and is biodegradable and compostable too. “It’s a cardboard liner and box,” Rebecca explains. “It’s a great product for anyone looking for something fully sustainable and strong. It works wonderfully. We’ve got a video of two men standing on the box, and it didn’t collapse at all. It’s more robust, so it’s great for heavy items, but also for protecting things that are fragile.”

Icertech’s innovation has led to more lightweight solutions, also using FSC sourced card
. Both the Eco-Box and Corr-Box consist of a double cardboard outer, with two padded paper liners. The Eco-Box will hold its contents from 0-8C for up to 48 hours while, with coolants, the Corr-Box will hold for up to 65 hours. Both boxes are fully kerbside recyclable, and perform incredibly well, say the team. “They’re something we’re very proud of,” admits Alex, who says although polystyrene is thought to be the leading material for shipping chilled and frozen goods, most producers don’t realise that it ‘outperforms’ for their purpose. “Most of our customers don’t need chilled items held for 72 hours, unless they are sending them to a different country.”

“Polystyrene, for a long time, has been the benchmark for performance,” Simon agrees. “But obviously there are questions around its sustainability. Most people need a 24-hour to 48-hour window, and our products offer that without ‘over speccing’.”

Icertech is currently working towards being B Corp by 2025 due to customer demand but also because it matters to the business internally. Sustainability is “in our mission statement, and discussed every single day within the office,” Simon says. “The focus is that, yes, the customer demands this, but also, as a family business, we want to do right by the environment as well. Everyone is behind that mission in the company. Our new products offer performance while being fully recyclable.”

Simon adds that they’d like to see less plastic being used within the business, while Alex counters that at the moment there isn’t a viable alternative material for, for example, their ice packs. And while they can look at streamlining the amount of plastic used here, or can use recycled plastic materials, technology in this part of the process needs to catch up to what industry and consumers expect.

Something the business is actively doing to ‘offset’ the use of plastics in making its coolants, is controlling its footprint across the manufacturing process. “We have solar energy, and we’re currently doubling the amount of solar capacity,” says Simon. “We’re looking at raw materials, and how we can make them more efficient, and whether we can make the plastic thinner. We’re trying to find efficiencies within the energy we use to lower our carbon footprint and carbon cost.”

In the past year the business has decreased the amount of electricity it draws from the mains by 47%, while increasing production hours on site, and waste has been cut down by 32%. Icertech has also carried out product lifecycle assessments across its ranges, which will be translated to the customer over the coming months, so they have access to data for reporting purposes. “It’s about informing customer choice,” Simon explains. “As much as sustainability is a buzzword, we also need to give them something imperial and numerical to go by.”

Ranpak also has a range of protective, fast, and cost-effective solutions that go hand-in-hand with sustainability. The manufacturer’s RecyCold Climaliner is a simple-to-use paper thermal liner which protects frozen, chilled and ambient products from temperature fluctuations for up to 48 hours. The product is recyclable, renewable, and biodegradable. With two thicknesses and three lengths available, Climaliner’s flexibility allows it to fit most box sizes. Customers can combine RecyCold Climaliners with RecyCold cool packs, which contain biodegradable plant-based gel that can be printed with their logo.

Wrapping is another essential element of packaging, and Ranpak’s Geami paper is designed to prevent damage that could occur in transit. Geami is three times faster to pack, requires no tape to seal, and items can be easily bundled together to save packing time and material. Providing up to 60% better protection and taking up significantly less space than bubble plastic, Geami comes in a variety of options to suit every size of business.

An additional innovation from Ranpak is Fillpak grass paper. Paper is highly effective at filing the void in boxes and locking products in place. When items are prevented from moving during transit, the chances of breakage reduce. Paper absorbs shock, and is also more sustainable than plastic alternatives.

What does the future hold?

Michelle says consumers will continue to dictate movement in the thermal packaging sector. She’s seeing growing demand for fully recyclable options, vegan-friendly solutions, and BRCGS accreditation – something Sorbafreeze holds. “It’s a recognised symbol of quality assurance, legal compliance, and high standards in packaging manufacture.” BRCGS accredited businesses must uphold rigorous standards throughout the manufacturing process, demonstrate complete traceability of materials, carry out strict quality checks, and assure packaging is food safe.


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