ROBERT CZICHOS: “GOOD CONSCIENCE TO GO – NATURE IS AN INSPIRATIONAL MODEL FOR THE PACKAGING INDUSTRY“

Photo: Robert Czichos

INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT CZICHOS

In 2009, Robert Czichos founded Bionatic GmbH & Co. KG, a supplier of ecological packaging for caterers, food service-providers and private households. GREENBOX (http://www.biologischverpacken.de/), the company, which he runs together with his partner Michael Brink, presents 450 different sustainable packaging solutions for the wholesale trade and at kauf dich grün (http://www.kaufdichgruen.de/), organic disposable tableware and organic domestic products are offered for private households. By taking this step the company is responding to the increasing demand for ecological packaging.

According to the “good conscience to go” motto, the range offered by both shops covers products made from organically based plastics, fibres from waste and residual materials, carton and paper, recycled plastics along with wood and bamboo.
Mr Czichos, flexibility is becoming ever more important in our society. We are increasingly eating exactly when we have time and an appetite. What is unbelievably convenient for consumers is posing completely new challenges for the packaging industry. What does food packaging have to offer in order to service the to-go trend?

First the packaging must fulfil its purpose: it must protect the food against contamination and also maintain the quality and freshness of the packaged products. Then it must be practical, for example not come apart during transportation. Finally, it must be affordable and, depending on the quality and pricing, must support the value of the product.

Keyword street food: the “High-Quality Food” trend is also picking up in the to-go sector. Do these high-quality food products also always require high-quality packaging?

Numerous successful quality food start-ups show that good food and meals are currently particularly in demand. And in a decorative, robust packaging, a high-quality, fresh salad simply looks particularly appealing. Packaging, which conveys the concept of the product, its quality or the associated lifestyle perception, therefore rounds off the overall impression.
How long have you been observing increasing demand in the food sector for ecological to-go packaging?

Organic packaging has its niche, which has increased in recent years due to the growing number of newly founded alternative food service companies. These innovative company founders would like to set themselves apart through their product ranges. By using organic packaging, they are putting the final touch on their product range covering wild herbal salads and veggie burgers.

WHO IS INTERESTED IN ORGANIC PACKAGING?

  • Food service market, smaller units
  • Food retail, with a view to barrier characteristics, storability, refrigeration-suitability and packaging costs
  • Consumers, with a view to recycling options
When and how did you decide to offer food and to-go packaging using regenerated and recycled raw materials?

The idea came to me in 2008 by chance as I was reading a trade article on organic plastics. Plastics made from plants? That is still a very interesting issue for me even today!

What share of your product range is accounted for by packaging made of recycled material? And in your estimate, how high is the share in terms of the entire food industry?

In our range the share of packaging made using recycled PET (rPET) is relatively low at approximately 2 %. This is mainly due to the fact that the range of rPET packaging for the food service market is still very manageable from the manufacturers’ side. rPET is a raw material in demand and processing it into food packaging is more costly than for example for clothing products. Although the range of food packaged using rPET is increasing in Germany, the beverage industry will however probably remain the driving force. According to our current know-how, process technology is currently further developing at a faster rate than was the case in the past. We do not have any specific figures, but if I was to make an estimate, then I would guess around 2 – 5 %.

THE CURRENTLY MOST IN-DEMAND RENEWABLE OR COMPOSTABLE PACKAGING MATERIAL AT BIONATIC IS …

  • compostable cellulose in combination with
  • organically based, sustainable coatings
From organic plastics to palm leaves: how many, and which materials does your packaging consist of?

We sub-divide our range into four organically based materials: wood, cellulose, organic plastic and palm leaves.
What are the special characteristics of your packaging solutions?

The special characteristics of our packaging solutions relate to the sustainable raw materials used to produce them. For that reason many of our packaging solutions are bio-degradable or environmentally friendly when incinerated.

THESE THREE CONSIST OF …

  • Cellulose: wood or bagasse
  • Bagasse: residual fibres from sugar cane
  • Bio-plastic: plant starch or bacteria
Packaging and tableware made of palm leaves: that almost sounds like a journey through time in the history of packaging. To what extent do you let yourself be inspired by original, natural packaging?

Some of the best packaging has been created by nature. I find that bananas are almost perfectly packaged – when we perhaps put to one side for a moment the energy-intensive, controlled ripening processes on the long transportation routes. Or let's look at coconuts. Unfortunately however, we can't yet just grow the shells on their own. In those regions where the palms grow, their leaves have for a very long time been used as a packaging material and for plates or dishes. To that extent it is a raw material, which can be further processed with relatively simple methods and has an outstanding environmental record.

So how does a leaf now become packaging?

A leaf is made into packaging by first subjecting it to high-pressure water cleaning. It is then moulded into shape using a mechanical press applying pressure and heat. This is therefore a so-called deep-drawing process, which is then followed by the finishing process in which the edges are smoothed and the surfaces polished. And then that is it. You work closely with specialized suppliers from all over the world – among others for a very long time with a family company from India dealing in palm leaf products. How have you both further developed? In recent years the initial customer-supplier relationship has developed into a trust-based partnership and a close cooperation has been forged for example in the development of new designs. In addition, we support our partner in extending and optimizing production. Together with a German university institute we have launched a project aimed at making the residual material from palm leaf production useable for a composite material consisting of natural fibre and organic plastic. Should the development be a success, we will be able to use the material for injection-moulded articles, which are 100-percent produced from the residual materials and renewable raw materials.
Since 2011 Bionatic has been working with a Southern Indian, family-run company, whose founders initially manufactured palm-leaf products in a garage.
Through the cooperation, the partner company has in the meantime been able to extend its production and create around 50 secure jobs with fair pay.
The palm-leaf products from Bionatic are made using the leaves of the Areca palm. This ancient cultural plant from Southeast Asia can grow up to a height of 25 metres.
Generous donor: around four to seven times a year the Areca palm sheds its leaves, which can grow up to two metres in length.
The palm-leaf products from Bionatic use the leaf sheathes of the Areca palm. One leaf sheath can be used to produce two or three palm-leaf plates or bowls.
During the dry period in India the leaves shed by the Areca are collected and sorted according to quality. The leaves, which are not suitable for further processing, are used as organic fertilizer on the fields or burnt.
The palm leaves, which are suitable for further processing, are washed, bundled and dried. In this process it is however important that they retain a certain degree of residual moisture. The leaves of the Areca palm naturally possess water-repellent characteristics so that when they are further processed no artificial coating or additives have to be used.
Using hydraulic presses the leaves are then moulded into their required form using heat application. Afterwards, thanks to their natural characteristics, the palm-leaf products are very robust and can withstand both heat as well as cold.
In the manufacture of their products Bionatic attaches significance to environmentally friendly production with the lowest possible energy consumption and low CO2 emissions.
Are there other innovative materials in the packaging industry which you would take into consideration to expand your range?

According to our current know-how, several manufacturers worldwide are working on the further development of the organic plastic PLA in order to further improve its characteristics and possible applications. What is also very exciting are the developments in the area of composite materials consisting of fibres and organic plastics (so-called Natural Fibre Plastic Compounds – NFPCs) as well as purely bacterially produced organic plastics. However, so far the raw material and material prices have not yet become competitive.

Sustainability not only affects the materials used but also the production and finishing: how do you ensure that your suppliers fulfil your expectations and requirements?

Over and above the materials we require that our suppliers optimize the use of resources and the application of environmentally friendly production means. In this connection for example, the water used to clean the palm leaves is collected, filtered and reused. The share replaced by fresh water is used to irrigate the green zones at the production location. Furthermore we expect that our suppliers use plant-based printing inks as far as it is possible within the framework of the customer's specifications.

To conclude, please just take a look into the future: how important will the purposeful approach to resources in the packaging industry become?

Already today the packaging market, particularly for standard products, is extremely competitive. That is why producers, manufacturers and retailers are under constant price and cost pressure. This leads to many production methods being highly efficient and only those, who can also make efficient use of the resources, will be able to survive on the market. In relation to the increased use of resource-saving raw materials such as recycled plastics or organically-based materials, many variables play an important role. Here for example we have the considerable influence of legislation in relation to environmental and climate protection or the medium to long-term trend in the crude oil price. In addition it will depend to a great extent on how the material properties, market prices and volume availability develop for the organic plastics of high potential. Unfortunately, I do not have a crystal ball.
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