Meal kits are becoming an integral part of daily life for many in the U.S., with meal kit providers like HelloFresh seeing a jump in subscribers in recent years, especially in the wake of COVID-19. However, a lingering complaint of meal kit critics is the amount of packaging waste these kits generate.
Meal kits themselves have a relatively good environmental footprint – they can reduce food waste and CO2 emissions compared to shopping at a grocery store. Still, two-thirds of the weight of a shipment is from the packaging itself, which more often than not goes directly into a landfill. Much of this weight is from the infamous blue gel-containing plastic packs that keep perishables cold during transit. In an ideal world, all meal kit packaging could be curbside collected and recycled together – but that’s not possible with current freezer pack technologies.
Most freezer pack innovations, especially when it comes to improving their environmental impact, have involved the inner coolant. For example, Nordic Cold and other freezer pack developers have designed “drain-safe” gels that consumers can safely pour down the drain without fear of clogging it, and Enviro Ice has developed a coolant that can act as a fertilizer when consumers empty it into soil. Still, a common denominator with all these solutions is that they are wrapped in low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic that consumers must take to special collection locations (where there is still a good chance that they will end up in a landfill).
Solution and impact
Domtar has reinvented the freezer pack, creating a recyclable paper-based solution. Its goal was to develop a solution that could be recycled along with the other packaging in a meal kit to make disposal as straightforward as possible for consumers. Domtar’s freezer pack is mainly composed of forest-derived fiber, including paper, tissue, and fluff pulp. Instead of having a gel core, the freezer pack consists of a small amount of superabsorbent polymer (SAP) sandwiched between tissue and carded nonwoven, so consumers can recycle the freezer pack with other paper-based packaging.
Preliminary testing – both internally and with downstream partners – has shown strong results and even a few unanticipated benefits. The paper pack design can hold its temperature the same as conventional options but at a lighter weight, has no leakage, and shows minimal condensation versus traditional packs. Domtar is continuing to work with e-commerce solution providers to research commercial feasibility and looking for partners to help determine how to best bring the technology to market.
Strategy and outlook
Domtar arrived at this innovation in a not-so-straightforward manner. Several prospects approached the company with a need for a more sustainable freezer pack solution, noting that just because today’s plastic freezer packs can hypothetically be recycled doesn’t mean that they will be – especially given the effort required on the consumer’s part. Domtar’s team recognized that a paper-based pack could address the issue and so decided to lean into its strengths and develop a solution. While it did not have a freezer pack product or even a prototype on hand, it was able to quickly repurpose a technology it had been developing for its personal care business (which the company has since sold). Other companies should similarly consider how they can apply their core technologies in new ways to tackle sustainability challenges. Domtar has since collaborated with industries that traditionally have not engaged with pulp and paper manufacturers (largely due to a perceived lack of relevant solutions).
Brian Spain, Platform Manager, Product Innovation, and Dan Persica, Manager, Strategic Planning & Market Development, will be receiving the Innovator of the Year award at the Lux Executive Summit on October 5th, 2021 on behalf of Domtar. The pair will present the innovation, what went into making it successful, how it aligns to sustainability goals, and how the team leveraged Lux Research to enable its efforts. Click here for more information about the 2021 Lux Executive Summit and how to participate.