Material efficiency increases responsibility and profitability

The food industry made Finland’s first material efficiency commitment for 2019‒2021. According to the interim report, the cost savings following the measures have been just shy of five million euros.

By Tarja Västilä

Image Motiva

The results of the interim report (in Finnish), published in late 2020, speak for themselves. The cost savings resulting from more than 80 measures have been almost five million euros, carbon dioxide has been reduced by more than ten thousand tonnes, food waste by three million kilograms and waste by more than five thousand tonnes. According to the interim report, packaging solutions have achieved cost savings of EUR 50,000 and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 117 tonnes and mixed and energy waste by 335 tonnes. 

‒ The results of the first year of commitment show that material efficiency can achieve significant cost savings and reduce the environmental impact of the food chain on greenhouse gas emissions and food loss and food waste, says Anna Vainikainen, Chief Policy Adviser at the Finnish Food and Drink Industries Federation. 

Although preparations for the material efficiency commitment began several years ago, the related material efficiency efforts only started in early 2019, when the Ministries for Agriculture and Forestry, Economic Affairs and Employment as well as the Environment, together with the Finnish Food and Drink Industries Federation, the Finnish Grocery Trade Association and the Finnish Packaging Association published the jointly agreed commitment for the food industry. Eleven major companies in the sector joined the commitment during its first year, and another six companies have joined since then. 

The commitment encourages companies to identify and implement material efficiency measures. The understanding of the effectiveness of the measures will also increase as a result, says Aki Finér, Circular Economy Expert at Motiva, which coordinates the commitment activities. 

The commitment encourages companies to identify and implement material efficiency measures.

The commitment is an opportunity to bring together the environmental efforts of the companies in the sector and to ensure that objectives that have societal importance are met, including reducing food waste and increasing recycling activities. Companies in the sector can position themselves as partners with government organisations in solving shared problems related to issues such as climate change. The commitment also provides a platform for new partnerships in the development of material efficiency in the food chain, explains Ilkka Nieminen, Director of the Finnish Grocery Trade Association. 

When the grocery trade and the food and drinks industries began to consider measures to increase material efficiency, the UK was taken as the example. The national material efficiency programme was updated, and an appropriate operating model was developed and introduced. It was suggested that the business community could take voluntary measures to promote the idea, and the food industry was the first to take it up in Finland. 

 Voluntary measures are more effective than legislation 

Motivas specialist Aki Finér says that voluntary measures were seen as a more effective way to promote material efficiency and reduce food waste than legislation. As a third party, Motiva undertook to coordinate the commitment activities. 

Working with the government bodies, we set out to determine sufficiently ambitious goals to which we could commit ourselves, says Finér. 

The eleven companies that committed to the material efficiency measures covered more than 90 percent of the grocery trade and about 20 percent of the food and drinks industries in terms of their turnover. Five members of the Finnish Packaging Association were involved. 

Wed like to see more packaging companies getting involved. They may have found it challenging to relate to the objectives and themes, says Finér. 

The objectives of the commitment are for companies to identify and improve existing material efficiency, streamline it through product and service design, create added value from side streams, strengthen staff skills and enhance awareness levels. 

Material efficient solutions for packaging design 

Packaging plays an important role in reducing food waste.  

The goal of the Finnish Packaging Association has been to reduce food waste with the help of packaging and companies that manufacture packaging. The longer-term goal is to increase all parties understanding of the opportunities offered by various types of packaging and, in general, to make the use of packaging more acceptable. Better management and development of material efficiency in the packaging manufacturers operations has also been an important long-term goal, says the Finnish Packaging Associations CEO Antro Säilä. 

According to Motivas Finér, packaging must not cause inconvenience or waste resources. Material efficiency will not be improved if packaging solutions create adverse effects in the other phases of the food chain. 

Products packaging must be suitable and it also needs to be recyclable. Reducing food waste is essential for the food and drinks industries as well as the retail and restaurant sectors, says Finér. 

Numerous material-efficient solutions are already available.

Packaging plays an important role in the food chain, both in terms of product safety and environmental responsibility. That is why it makes sense to consider the themes related to material efficiency in relation to the commitment that brings together the various parties in the food chain and the packaging industry, adds the Finnish Food and Drink Industries Federations Vainikainen. 

Motivas Finér says that material efficiency is based on product and packaging design. Numerous material-efficient solutions are already available. The premise of design is to create products that are long-lasting and easy to recycle. 

This also brings savings, improves companies profitability and ensures that natural resources are used in a sustainable manner. Functional products and packaging make consumers lives easier. Material efficiency is also about the quality of products. 

Pioneers share their experiences 

According to Motiva, material efficiency means producing competitive products and services with smaller volumes of materials. Adverse effects decrease over a products life cycle. 

At its best, material efficiency becomes a systematic part of company’s strategy, and companies gain visibility for their corporate responsibility efforts and improve their profitability. 

The savings are shown on the last line of the income statement. Material efficiency is good for business, concludes Finér. 

The companies involved are pioneers and role models. The partners in the network can share their experiences, and they also have a direct line to the ministries. 

Packaging companies: join the commitment! 

The commitment alone will not raise awareness, but it makes a good framework for recognising the impacts of material efficiency. Networks play an important role. 

Its always a good idea to share more information. Best practices are passed on through examples. Communications can go in many different ways: between companies and also those aimed at consumers. Consumers also value recycling and material efficiency measures, says Finér. 

The material efficiency commitment of the food industry is a good tool for packaging manufacturers when it comes to developing their businesses and in-house operations, adds Säilä from the Finnish Packaging Association. 

Collaboration creates new solutions 

Packaging innovations are often the result of collaboration between a packaging designer and manufacturer and the company using the packaging. According to Motivas Finér, the best way to develop operations is for the organisations in the food chain to work together. 

Measures that the packaging sector can take include improving the collaboration in the chain and in-house processes, reducing or optimising the use of plastics and using new and renewable materials. In packaging, plastic has been replaced with fibre materials or recycled plastics. Its important to ensure that the materials are safe for food packaging and that they are recycled, explains Finér. 

Producing optimal packaging and reducing the amount of packaging material means that less material is used, so savings can be achieved in transportation costs. 

New innovations include smart packages for food that come with freshness indicators. The packaging, which is under development, is likely to be on a supermarket shelf near you at some point. 

The commitment encourages people to focus on quality 

There are already plans to continue the commitment model as the feedback has been very positive. 

The companies in the sector can utilise the commitment as a systematic approach to developing low-carbon business and promoting circular economy. The commitment makes the companies efforts more visible and provides an opportunity to compare different best practices. The companies are willing to go on with the commitment, and the plans for its extension are in place, says Vainikainen from the Finnish Food and Drink Industries Federation. 

There are already plans to continue the commitment model as the feedback has been very positive. 

It must be noted, however, that packaging manufacturers have not been quite as enthusiastic about the commitment. 

In the first commitment period, which will end at the end of 2021, companies that use packaging have, naturally, focused on developing their internal processes and identifying the sources of food loss. There have been practically no development projects which would have actively sought to reduce food waste through new types of packaging. The lack of joint development projects is clearly a reason for the packaging manufacturers lack of interest in the commitment. We need to find a more defined role for packaging manufacturers for the next commitment period, and companies that use packaging play a key role in this, says Säilä of the Finnish Packaging Association. 

Finér says that it is not too late for companies to join the commitment this year. 

Motiva assesses whether the targets that companies set are sufficiently ambitious. If necessary, Motivas team encourages and helps companies to define the objectives and metrics for material efficiency reporting, Finér says and adds that companies do need to work on commitment-related activities such as determining goals and measures to be taken as well as reporting. It is worth doing things properly, but there will be no sanctions even if companies fail to meet their targets. 

Its not that hard to come up with a few goals and reports. In the best case scenario, it may inspire even smaller companies to start thinking about the quality and continuity of their operations and how it might improve their profitability.