One of the key declarations to come out of Rio was that all people are responsible for ensuring that Earth continues to be habitable for the coming generations. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002, the participants reaffirmed their commitment to fully implement and further develop the principles of Agenda 21.
Åke Rosén’s thoughts turned to eggshells when he was developing his ideas about a sustainable packaging material which would reduce the use of non-renewable resources and minimise environmental impact. The eggshell, one of nature’s perfect packages, would become Rosén’s model for the development of a sustainable packaging material for the future. However, the eggshell - composed of a mixture of 95 per cent calcium carbonate (chalk) and five per cent protein binding agent - is too brittle to be used as a commercial packaging material.
The material developed by Ecolean is compsosed of a mixture of chalk and polyolefin, the least harmful of all plastics which is used as binding agent. While no packaging material today can claim to be without environmental impact, the new Ecolean product has come a long way towards being a practical and sustainable packaging material. Calcium carbonate can be found everywhere in the world: it is the result of geological and life processes which took place long ago and it is absoulutely harmless to the environment and human health.
The new product is suitable for a multitude of packaging and with no harmful effects on contact with food, it is ideal for food packaging. It can be used for a vast range of packaging applications such as soft bottles, pouches and wrapping film.
Nilsson believes that the new material will have the same impact on the packaging industry in the 21st century as paper had in the first half of the 20th century and PE-plastics in the second half. He further points out that environmental impacts do not only have to do with what happens to packaging material after its use, but also was a lot to do with the resources used to produce the packaging material in the first place.
The new material uses up to 60 per cent less resources in the production process and pollutes less than any other conventional packaging material today. Nilsson explains the manufacturing: “After crushing and milling the mineral to a fine powder, there are two simple processes requiring minimal energy to finish the product. This is in stark contrast to the manufacture of paperboard, plastics and aluminium, all of which require substantially more energy in the production process and result in greater waste. Since less water is required in the production process, this can be a big advantage in places where there is a shortage of water. The used packaging material can be recycled and it is photodegradable.”
The focus of the product is for food packaging and there are no plans to enter the sterile packaging business, as the company believes that pasteurised products are likely to be in greater demand by consumers due to taste and nutrition.
The LeanPack product for liquid foods has been successfully introduced, mainly in Eastern Europe where there are already more than 100 installations. Nilsson says that the LeanPack system is of interest to customers of all sizes, but he expects that in the Asia Pacific region, smaller operations (with a need to package 20 to 50 tonnes of product per day) will find the LeanPack system of particular interest, due to its economic advantages and potential for market differentiation. Another advantage of the LeanPack is that it can be placed directly in a microwave oven to heat its content (after having first cut open the pack). The LeanPack product line includes specialised filling machines manufactured by the company.
LeanCover meanwhile is a wrapping film which offers opportunities to package products without the use of aluminium foil and therefore enabling the packaged product to be scanned. This material can be used in existing packaging machines.
In Europe, major French retailer Carrefour has switched to LeanCover for its butter packaging and Marks & Spencer has introduced LeanCover for wrapping butter for sale at its UK and Irish outlets.
Another product from Ecolean is LeanPouch (for milk, juice, edible oil, yoghurt, wine, water etc).
Ecolean has its headquarters and R&D facility in Helsingborg, Sweden, where it also manufactures filling machines and packaging materials. In 2002, the company opened a third factory in Tianjin, China for the manufacture of its packaging materials. The company’s main focus in China is the capture of market share in the fast growing pasteurised dairy sector, as the products are viewed to fit very well with the restructuring process currently underway in China’s dairy industry. In the Asia Pacific region, Ecolean has currently agents in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Philippines.
The company is privately owned and one of its main investors is Hans Rausing, son of Ruben Rausing the founder of Tetra Pak. Hans Rausing was the managing director of Tetra Pak from 1954 to 1985 and its chairman of the board until 1993. Under his management the Tetra Pak company grew from a firm with only seven staff to become the largest packaging production company in the world.
Rausing has always been known for his vision and he was from an early age putting his sites on Eastern Europe rather than the West and the United States. He has been proven right in the past and only time will tell if he is right about Ecolean.