Packaging Innovation
April 14, 2014

Cold chain packaging and the question of eco-friendliness

Shipping edible and pharmaceutical products requires packaging that is, one, rigid enough to protect the goods and, two, keeps things nice and cool. Cold chain packaging, necessary for all kinds of food and pharmaceutical applications, faces numerous challenges with the rise of environmental opposition. The question for packaging designers around the world is this one: “How to create efficient, affordable insulated packaging when public opinion continues to shift in favor of more eco-friendly materials that are reusable, biodegradable, compostable or ideally easily recyclable?”

Traditional cold chain packaging

Most food and pharmaceutical items are temperature sensitive and therefore part of a cold chain during the production process to help maintain product freshness and efficacy. During shipment these products are held in so-called insulated shipping containers that are typically made of expanded polystyrene foam (EPS, Styrofoam, etc.), plastics, bubble wrap or other gas filled panes. While very effective in maintaining a steady temperature throughout transportation, they fail in the field of sustainability and eco-friendliness.

So what other options are there for packaging designers to keep foods, medicine and chemicals cool during and after shipment?

What about recycled EPS foam?

It’s true that EPS foam can be recycled, yet to what extent and where the materials come from is not always clear. The truth is that most recycled foams aren’t anywhere near reaching 100 percent recyclability.

In recent years a couple of cold chain packaging companies have started producing green thermal boxes. Instead of EPS these companies use patented recycled fibers to prevent leaking and spilling, plus additives that help prevent cross contamination.

Plant-based plastic containers

In their search of more eco-friendly ways of producing plastics, scientists and manufacturers have come up with plant-based plastics. A great example is Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle, launched back in 2009. Instead of using petroleum PlantBottles are made of fully-recyclable sugarcane based ingredients. Coca-cola wants to use PlantBottles for all their bottled products by 2020.

No “one size fits all solution” for cold chain packaging

It’s important to note however that, much like almost any other area of packaging or sustainability, there is no “one size fits all” solution to the problem of cold chain packaging. Rather, each industry and each manufacturer has to invest in efficient and eco-friendly packaging solutions.