Film stars: Mengniu first China food firm to use recycled resin packaging as sustainability demands rise

By Pearly Neo contact

- Last updated on GMT

China dairy heavyweight Mengniu has become the first firm in the domestic food industry to use recycled resin shrink film for the secondary packaging of its dairy products. ©Mengniu
China dairy heavyweight Mengniu has become the first firm in the domestic food industry to use recycled resin shrink film for the secondary packaging of its dairy products. ©Mengniu

Related tags: mengniu, China, Sustainability, Packaging

China dairy heavyweight Mengniu has become the first firm in the domestic food industry to use recycled resin shrink film for the secondary packaging of its dairy products.

The company has partnered with packaging and materials science firm Dow for this to meet growing Chinese consumer demands for more sustainable packaging.

According to Mengniu Dairy Packaging R&D Director Frank Wang, the firm has billions across China and the rest of Asia that use plastic, and the company is looking to reduce its environmental impacts as part of its sustainability commitments.

“Mengniu has a great vision for sustainability, where we have made a promise to lead consumers towards a Healthier World – and shifting towards more sustainable packaging is a critical part of that,”​ Wang told FoodNavigator-Asia​.

“There are many different solutions for this on the market now, but we have found recycling is still one of the most effective. Before this, post-consumer recycled (PCR) resins were used in various other industries, but not yet in the China food industry, [and we are the first to do so].

“Mengniu saw the high potential in this shrink film from the data Dow provided on how it can perform compared to that made with virgin resins, and also how it could close the circle in the supply chain by recycling used packaging back into this film to be used for dairy product packing, hence prioritised the rollout of this.”

Mengniu is currently using the PCR resin shrink film as secondary packaging (i.e. not used to make the bottle or container holding the food/drink, but to make the packaging that holds the bottles/containers together) for two of its products which are a drinking yoghurt that is usually stored under ambient conditions, and a fermented milk product that needs to be chilled.

“Sustainability is a very hot topic in China today, with many high level conferences discussing sustainable packaging and processing. Especially after China announced its carbon neutral strategy, demand is now very strong locally and companies like us need to act,”​ added Wang.

“We know that using this PCR resin can help us to reduce hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide yearly, so by investing in this, the aim really is to tell consumers that Mengniu is seriously investing in carbon reduction.

“We need to show consumers that as a dairy firm, we are being responsible about sustainability, and this is solid and real work we are doing to work towards a circular economy in China, and hopefully our efforts will encourage other firms to also do the same.”

Wang also highlighted other current Mengniu sustainable packaging initiatives including plastic usage reduction, removing PVC from packaging, and optimising its packaging designs for recycling.

According to Dow Recycling APAC Commercial Director for Packaging & Specialty Plastics Suny Markose, the use of PCR resin for packaging can contribute to sustainability in two ways –reducing GHG gas emissions by some 25% and also by recycling plastic waste such that this does not flow into the environment.

“The key here is that this reduces the dependency on fossil-fuel based plastics, which many food brands such as Mengniu are trying to shift away from in order to lower their carbon footprint,”​ Markose told us.

“Using PCR resin-based shrink film gives plastics a useful end-of-life, and we predict that the demand for this by the F&B industry over the next few years for commercial products will increase.”

Dow utilizes domestic plastic waste collected from recycling partners such as milk, water, juice bottles, and discarded flexible film within China. These are made into PCR resins which are incorporated into the core layer of the shrink film. 

Cost of sustainability

Although the firms remained coy on exact costs, they informed us that the PCR resin-based shrink wrap does cost somewhat more than regular shrink wrap as there are ‘more elements of associated costs’​.

“That said, it really does show the value brought to consumers and brands – it is priced a bit higher than virgin but brand owners like Mengniu see the value as an enabler to reach their sustainability goals,”​ said Markose.

“We can clearly see growing interest amongst brands in Asia despite the higher cost, and the cost is consistent as brands won’t compromise on functionality and we need to ensure the film performs as well as virgin film and is also free of any contaminants.

“That said, as we scale up and get more PCR, we do expect the cost to drop. It should be noted though that because we collect the plastic waste from recycling partners, part of the proceeds do go to the recycler to encourage more collection and push this towards becoming a self-sustaining, value-added model.”

Further F&B applications

Because the shrink film is used as secondary packaging, currently its uses can be for any type of F&B product requiring such packaging from dairy to beer to soft drinks and more.

“In countries like China, PCR resin packaging cannot be used in instances with any direct food contact yet,”​ Dow APAC Marketing Director for Packaging, Packaging & Specialty Plastics Kodak Xiao added.

“We do hope that regulations might shift to allow further applications with food products so we can work to provide more offerings based on recycled resin in this regard, but in the meantime the focus will be on secondary packaging for food and perhaps other applications in some other less sensitive areas like cosmetics.”

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