Sustainability Remains a Focus in Foodservice Packaging

Sustainability, while currently in the shadow of the pandemic, will reemerge as a priority for many companies and consumers alike. For this issue of the Expert Interview, Laura Craven, Imperial Dade’s VP of Marketing, spoke with Richa Desai, Director, Sustainability for Sabert, a leading foodservice packaging manufacturer.

Richa Desai

LC: Tell us about your role at Sabert?

RD: I have been in this role for just over a year and a half. I am responsible for collaborating with our internal functions to develop a coordinated sustainability road map to deliver Sabert’s sustainability commitments. I am also responsible for designing and executing a sustainability strategy to drive business performance and sustainable innovation across our company’s value chain.

LC: How did you become interested in this field of work?

RD: Sustainability has always been a very integral part of life. I grew up in a small town in the desert region on the west coast of India. The hardships brought by the extreme hot temperatures, followed by practically no rain and frequent power cuts inculcated a sense of value in me for natural resources like water, food, and energy very early on in my childhood. I started my career as an interior designer and always focused on merging modern day advancements in science and technology along with local craft and artisans in the design process to provide not only environmental, but also socially sustainable solutions. Further education, travel to different countries and interactions with national and international experts in the field of sustainability fueled my interest into a passion. Like so many others in the field, it was not a straight career path for me. Today, after a full day of work, I feel immensely satisfied and accomplished knowing that I am contributing, even if in a small way, to addressing some the biggest societal issues of our times. For me it is all about the sense of purpose.

“Sustainability may have taken a back seat, but climate change and packaging waste will still be here with us when we come out of this pandemic.”

LC: What is Sabert’s position on sustainable products and business practices?

RD: Sabert’s commitment to sustainability has been an ongoing effort dating back over 36 years. It is in our DNA to be sustainable. Sustainability is very well integrated into our business strategy which is evident through our Global Strategic Commitment. The commitment, to increase our share of sales from sustainable products, is supported in part by our fully owned plastics recycling facility – Nuvida and investments in local sourcing and manufacturing of all three – paper, plastics and pulp packaging.

LC: Tell us more about Nuvida.

RD: Nuvida is Sabert’s full-service, stand-alone recycling plant, recognized as one of the world’s leading processors and suppliers of food-grade recycled plastic resins. Nuvida has obtained a letter of compliance from the Food & Drug Administration, allowing post-consumer plastic beverage caps to be used in highly regulated packaging applications with direct food contact.  Nuvida’s mission is to reduce plastic’s impact on the planet by transforming waste into the highest quality recycled resins.

Nuvida recycling facility in Junction, NJ

LC: Has COVID-19 impacted the sustainability movement in foodservice?

RD: Absolutely! We just don’t know how long the shadow will persist. Disposability, which was once a dirty word, has now become a selling point as it offered safety and hygiene. Municipalities paused on recycling and bottle redemption, we experienced a budget deficit, lower oil prices, and changes in regulatory priorities and disruptions in supply chain. All of these factors contributed to a setback in the sustainability movement. Sustainability may have taken a back seat, but climate change and packaging waste will still be here with us when we come out of this pandemic. So, brands that keep their commitments to sustainability will emerge stronger on the other side.

“If there is one thing that is very well evident, it is that take-out and delivery is here to stay along with an increase in e-commerce demand.”

LC: How does packaging fit into sustainability programs in the foodservice industry?

RD: We all know that food packaging delivers many benefits such as food safety, portion control and extended shelf life that prevents food from going to waste. However, the increase in use of packaging has contributed to the waste issue that we are dealing with as a society today.

As a packaging company, we play a key role in being a part of the solution to this single use packaging waste problem.  At Sabert, we recognize the importance of moving towards a circular economy where waste is designed out of the process. Following the circular economy principle, we have defined our sustainable products as products that are either compostable or are recyclable with an average of more than or equal to 25% recycled or bio-based content. Through this definition, we are not only addressing the problem of packaging waste, but are also reducing our dependence on virgin fossil fuel based raw materials.

LC: In addition to compostability and recyclability, are there other important attributes of sustainable packaging?

RD: To transition towards a circular economy, we will need multiple materials. It is not about selecting one material over the other. We need to consider the full life cycle impacts of a package. What is important is that we keep our packaging from ending up as waste by designing for recyclability or compostability at the end of their useful life by using recycled, recyclable, bio based or renewable raw materials. For us, it is absolutely imperative to ensure that we are sourcing materials ethically and responsibly, and that we are minimizing GHG emissions, water consumption and waste generation throughout our processes.

LC: How does sustainable packaging fit into certification systems such as LEED or GRA?

RD: Both LEED and GRA encourage sustainable purchasing and waste diversion out of landfill. They grant points/credits for using packaging that contains recycled content and/or is recyclable or compostable. Sabert offers a wide variety of products across its plastics, paper and pulp portfolio to help customers achieve and/or maintain LEED, TRUE ZERO waste certification and GRA.

LC: Please explain Sabert’s Earthtelligent Program?

RD: Earthtelligent is our comprehensive approach to sustainability. Through Earthtelligent, we are collaborating across our value chain, from our suppliers to end consumers, to advance waste reduction, energy efficiency, smart sourcing, education & advocacy and research & reinvention. Each of these pillars have specific goals and metrics. We share our progress on these pillars with our stakeholders through our annual sustainability report.

LC: What other practices can manufacturers employ to reduce their impact on the environment?

RD: When I joined Sabert, the message from our CEO, Albert Salama was very clear – “let’s lead by doing the right thing”. We have been putting a lot of resources towards making our operations sustainable through energy and water efficiency, reducing waste and diverting it away from landfill, carbon reduction through renewable energy, energy efficient fleet and responsible sourcing. In short, we are “walking the talk” by developing sustainable products sustainably.

LC: How does changing legislation pose challenges and how can Sabert help operators navigate and comply with those rules?

RD: With rising awareness around climate change and single use packaging waste, consumers have become increasingly aware of the effects of non-sustainable products on the environment and governments are starting to act. With lack of national consensus around the issue, understanding these policies at a state, city or county level can get complex. We track the regulatory environment on a regular basis and can help operators via sharing a bill tracker that we update every quarter. We also work together with operators to address their specific needs.

LC: What do you see for the future when it comes to consumer preferences?

RD: If there is one thing that is very well evident, it is that take-out and delivery is here to stay along with an increase in e-commerce demand. People have realized the value packaging provides in safety, hygiene and preventing food waste. As per a study conducted by AMERIPEN, packaging is one of the three strategies to prevent food waste and related GHG emissions. Consumers will demand transparency more than ever. Sustainability is on the cusp of becoming a given in any product, right up there with quality and performance. So, I would like to encourage operators to demand sustainability performance in their purchases because it is only through our collaboration that we will create a better tomorrow!

LC: Thank you, Richa! This has been very informative and inspiring!

Contact your Imperial Dade representative today for a review of your foodservice packaging and other supplies. Our experts will help you identify more sustainable options that meet your needs. Visit http://www.ImperialDade.com for a location near you.

Author: Imperial Dade

Imperial Dade is the leading independent distributor of foodservice packaging, industrial packaging, janitorial supplies and equipment in the United States. We serve 60,000 customers nationwide. To learn how we can help your business thrive, contact us today!

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