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In search of greener gold: On the road to 100% sustainable packaging

We like to push creative boundaries when it comes to packaging. From our 2019 Japanese woodblock influenced Matcha and Pistachio White Chocolate, to the gold that weaves its way from our Sante bars through to our iconic Classic Blocks.

But, even though we’re proud of the beautiful design and food safety our packaging offers, we know there is room for improvement in the materials we use. Currently 82.51% of the packaging materials we use can be recycled, but we want to do better. That’s why we're aiming for all our packaging to be 100% sustainable by 2025.

It’s something Holly Whittaker, our Co-Chief Operating Officer and fourth-generation Whittaker, feels strongly about, “as New Zealand’s Most Loved and Trusted Brand, we want to do what we can to protect the environment for future generations”.

Identifying the worst offenders

Whittaker’s packaging falls into one of three categories:

  • Shippers and displays: Cartons our chocolate is shipped in, or the smaller box displays you see in dairies. Sustainability status: Already recyclable.
  • Internal process packaging: What our raw materials arrive in like ingredients or labels. Sustainability status: Some progress to be made, for example reducing or completely removing shrink wrap.
  • Consumer facing: What you see on the supermarket shelf. Sustainability status: The problem area.

“Where we’ve got the most work to do is in consumer facing packaging,” Holly says. “Although many of our products are partly-recyclable, like our 100g Artisan block labels or 250g paper wraps, this area still represents our largest contributor to non-sustainable packaging. So materials like flow-wrap and block foil are ones we’ll be replacing over the next few years.”

What is flow-wrap?
A metalized soft plastic wrap that is not currently recyclable in New Zealand’s soft plastics recycling centers.

What is block foil?
A paper and foil laminate that is not currently accepted by paper or aluminium recycling centers in New Zealand.

What we’ve done so far

Technology has evolved over recent years to the point where packaging alternatives are more widely available.

“It’s been a learning curve for us, as it has been for many FMCG businesses both here and overseas,” Holly describes, “At Whittaker’s, we’ve just completed a research phase, which helped us understand what materials are out there or in development.”

Claire (left), Holly (centre), Hannah (right) and the team out on the Porirua factory floor.

There’s a lot of sustainability buzz words out there too. So, we really wanted to get to grips with the differences between:

  • Home compostable: Packaging that can go in your home composting bin along with your food waste.
  • Commercially compostable: Packaging that needs to go to a special facility that provides the right conditions for it to break down. 
  • Recyclable: Packaging that can be recycled into new products.

“The landscape also changes quickly, so you have to react quickly. Paper materials that we looked at 12 months ago have changed again. You need to have a flexible testing process that allows you to pivot and experiment,” she says.

What we’re doing now

We’re now in the screening phase. This means we're taking alternative packaging materials and putting them through a rigorous testing process.

Our key considerations are:

  • Food safety and quality: Can the packaging protect the chocolate to our 12-month shelf-life and still eat to our quality standard?
  • Sustainable integrity: Can it be sustainably produced, and responsibility disposed of?
  • Print quality: Can we print gold on the new sustainable material?
  • Changes to our machines: If the material feels different, will it run through our wrapping machines? What will we need to change?

Engineering Manager at Whittaker’s, Herbert Aregger, is surprised at how well some paper-based materials have performed on our wrapping machines. "There were a few adjustments we had to make, which is to be expected. The main one being we had to increase the cut-off length for flow-wrapped products like Mini Slabs,” he explains. The cut-off length is the space between where the current bar ends and the new one starts on a production line. If the cut-off length is too short, it can pull too tightly across the corners of the bar causing tears in the packaging. 

Another challenge chocolate makers like us face, is that we use perishable ingredients. If you buy a pair of shoes and a bar of chocolate, the packaging requirements for each item are quite different. We need to make sure we don’t rush the leg work as we will not compromise food safety standards.

Our packaging must act as a barrier and provide a stable internal environment. And that’s where shelf-life tests come in (the process of checking chocolate over time).

New Product Development Technologist, Philippa Swale, outlines Whittaker’s approach to testing:

“During the initial phase, we run a 3-month, accelerated shelf-life test and a 12-month ambient shelf-life test. For example, we look for how well the chocolate survives in heat or cold, how it holds up to moisture. We try to re-create what it might experience over 12-months in the real world. This is benchmarked against a standard bar to check they’re changing at the same rate.”

Different types of chocolate also have different needs. A dark chocolate is quite stable, as it doesn’t have ingredients like milk. This makes it more straightforward to package. Then there are complex flavours. These are ones that might be more challenging because of the texture and aroma of their ingredients. So, packaging alternatives are checked across different chocolate types. 

Whittaker's Sustainable Packaging Team.

During testing we keep an eye out for changes like:

  • The texture and freshness of nuts
  • Chocolate colour
  • Fillings (will it harden or soften?)
  • Aroma (will it escape over time?)

This process is closely monitored by a dedicated, cross-functional team at our factory in Porirua and we also carry out external lab testing.

On the road to a better solution

We’ve completed over 100 shelf life tests and counting since March 2019, and we’re continuing to collaborate with our machinery experts and packaging partners (Lamprint, Printstock, Gravure, Scion and DIN CERTCO)

Trial packaging from made from a paper base.

“It may be that there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Holly explains.  “Dark chocolate might be in one type of packaging and more complex flavours in another.”

Our next phase involves:

  • Testing new packaging options across the entire Whittaker’s product range – all 200 items (!)
  • Running longer factory trials.
  • Checking how they travel. This means sending trial packs to locations like Australia and Asia and making sure they’re OK in climates and warehouse environments different to ours in New Zealand. We’ll also see if the packaging can keep bugs out – less glamorous, but necessary!
  • Compostable testing.

It’s important to look at the whole life cycle. From what’s involved to create packaging, through to where it ends up. As Holly explains, “what we choose must have a reliable and accessible end-of-life solution.”

So we ask questions like:

  • For recyclables: Is it a type of paper, soft plastic or aluminium that can be easily recycled? Will it be accepted by recycling centers across New Zealand?
  • For compostable bioplastics: What education is required for home composting? Is there a collection system for commercial composting?

Compostable certification begins early 2020 at a facility in Rotorua. The process takes between 6-12 months. 

“We need to be sure the packaging breaks down, as we don’t want to have a negative impact on the environment," says Food and Safety Compliance Manager, Claire McKay.

Join us on the journey

This is an urgent issue that needs urgent attention.

We hope to beat our goal of 100% sustainable packaging by 2025 and we want to share the journey with you. So watch this space and if you've got a great idea for packaging, we'd love to hear from you!