While sustainability remains high on the agenda for packaging companies, there is a major difference between words and action. Nestlé has never turned away from a challenge, especially when so much is at stake, which is why it has taken a major step in the sustainability journey by turning all the plastic packaging in its Smarties brand into paper. Alexander von Maillot, category head of ice cream and confectionery, and Bruce Funnell, head of packaging global confectionery – both of Nestlé – talk to Matthew Rogerson about that journey, and what Nestlé has learned so far.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Nestlé has ambitious sustainability targets, starting with 100%-reusable or recyclable packaging by 2025, and reducing its use of virgin plastics by a third in the same time period. It is important to appreciate how momentous these changes are, and the sheer scale of what that means for packaging and packaging waste. While the target of turning the plastic packaging of Smarties into paper is not the start of the journey for Nestlé, it is still incredibly significant. It is the first major brand in confectionery to achieve this, and it is the first time a core brand of a major multinational corporation has managed to completely remove all plastic from its packaging.
Alexander von Maillot, who heads Nestlé’s ice cream and confectionery division, provides an executive, commercial perspective on quite how gargantuan the effort involved has been. “I, like many others, felt that this would be a relatively simple undertaking, and was amazed by how complex it truly was. We had to change 90% of our portfolio and 419 SKUs [stock keeping units] into different formats to move from plastic to paper. We removed 400t of plastic in the process. The more we tackled this issue, the more changes we realised we would have to make: the cap has to go, the large bag, the wrapping around multipacks… there was a lot of plastic we realised we needed to remove.”
While the decision to move to paper might have appeared an easy one to make, “the devil is really in the details”, Von Maillot confirms. “We cannot use the same format, the same shapes, the same sizes because, in paper, you cannot do what you can do in plastic. Suddenly, you are talking about changing the commercial proposition to customers. Something that was a certain weight and size, after we moved into paper, is a different format with different sizes and moving through the supply chain differently, and even impacting the centimetres square retail shelf space we used to use.”
These are major changes, and Nestlé had to innovate, maintaining the reclosable top (still made of paper, not plastic) by using a hexagon shape instead of a circular tube. Consumers have asked for a sustainable solution to resolve the issue of plastic waste, and Nestlé has delivered in creative fashion. As Von Maillot explains, making a packaging change like this one leads to a profound impact and change across the category. “When we look back on this journey over the last few years, we learned it’s really case by case, because the products are very different. The impact of packaging in Smarties with its hard shells that protect the centre would be different to that of KitKat due to the soft wafer outside and chocolate covering. It would require a very different protection.
“We then have to consider the long supply chain as we produce in our factories, then move to central warehouses and, finally, to customers via supermarkets or other shops. Even though we know today that paper is viewed more favourably, we cannot simply move all our confectionery into this packaging without further exploration, innovation and research. We have to be methodical and take each case individually, as every product will require adjustments and slightly different functional and performance needs. There is not a one-size- fits-all solution.”
While the category impact was significant, the team that really lived and experienced this was the packaging engineering group that was responsible for making the change a reality, led by Bruce Funnell, head of packaging global confectionery.
Funnell agrees with Von Maillot. “As Alexander mentioned, a change like this, impacting more than 400 SKUs is on a very significant scale. The first major realisation is the scale of what you are tackling. It gives us a chance to look across the globe at all the different formats we’re using, and makes you think, ‘Are they as efficient as they could be?’ ‘Is this an opportunity also to start to look at this?’
“For example, there was a major change in format; we have this core tube made of board with an end cap of plastic, and a cardboard end at the other side, and a tamper-evident sleeve all around. All this has to be tackled and led to a completely different format. Our new-look hexagonal tube, the closure moving from plastic to paper, all of these changes, to give us the manufacturing flexibility to provide consumers the format they want, requires a lot of engineering excellence to make possible.”
“Of course, it’s our dream to sell a one-size-fits-all product in every market in the world,” continues Von Maillot, “as we could then have massive lines efficiently running 24/7, and no need to provide any flexibility, but the reality is that the local market dictates everything. What we provide needs to fit into the local consumers’ price point. There are many factors and variables that inform what material you use and need to be addressed when you make a packaging change, and they might not all be apparent.”
Such drastic changes and sudden shifts in supply chain and packaging vernaculars also necessitate an evolving understanding of machinery. Specifically, what type of production tools are needed to conform to the increasingly sustainable demands of consumers. “Typically, flow-wraps, pouches and bags run at a certain speed on the line,” explains Funnell, “and we can maintain that speed while ensuring the product is protected. We know how the packaging acts going down the line and how the product reacts inside it, so we can ensure it reaches consumers in the best condition. But paper is a very different material, and while it has some fantastic qualities it also has some limitations compared with plastic.”
In response, Funnell’s team had to ask themselves quite searching questions, such as: how is the material made? Or, how does it move through Nestlé’s existing converting operations?
“We had to account for the fact that paper is very absorbent,” he says, “and we did not want any issues from odour or taint affecting the finished product. We had to manage this right the way through, with factories ensuring that we can handle the paper throughout without damage – because paper is more at risk of rupture.”
Funnell affirms Von Maillot’s mantra: there is no one-size-fits-all in packaging applications. “The packaging provides the service to the product; it’s the product that the consumer wants to eat. And we need to deliver the great taste and quality the consumer expects, and we have to do that in the most efficient way with the right amount of resources [without] creating waste anywhere in the value chain.”
Funnell is keen to point out the multifaceted and complex differences between plastic and paper – even though Nestlé has used the latter for packaging in the past. “Many people have commented that we were already in paper in the past and that this move took nearly two years to complete,” he confesses. “But even the very first format that we produced in paper started at relatively slow speeds. And we had to learn about the material behaviour down the line, and consider design features like no hard edges.”
It was, according to both, a true team effort in the company, from everyone: the commercial teams, factories, R&D, suppliers and recyclers. Nonetheless, “it was a hugely rewarding project to be part of”, Funnell beams.