In Search of the Packaging Compromise

Thomas Regenhardt, Head of Packaging at HelloFresh, explains the challenges that cooking box shippers face when it comes to packaging concepts. He also explains how the fast-growing company is mastering the balancing act between packaging functions and sustainability.

HelloFresh is growing extremely dynamically, so the amount of packaging required is also increasing sharply. How do you curb the ecological consequences of your sales success?

In Q3 2020 alone, we shipped over 10 million more boxes than in the same period in 2019, an increase of 114 percent. This is precisely why we are constantly looking for innovative and sustainable ways to avoid unnecessary packaging material. For example, we are currently working hard on a Europe-wide switch to recyclable paper packaging for dry goods such as rice, quinoa and nuts. The planning for this has been underway for some time, and now we have completed the implementation. Soon our customers will see the new packaging solutions in their cooking boxes.

The launch of our “Packaging Configurator 2.0” will also be exciting. This software we developed autonomously and it dynamically predicts our packaging consumption, using Big Data. In the future, further development of the configurator should enable us to determine the volume of ingredients in a box even more accurately. This will allow us to significantly reduce packaging use. According to initial test results, a cardboard reduction of over 187,000 kilograms and a plastic reduction of over 5,500 kilograms per year are possible for Germany, Austria and Switzerland alone. Reduced packaging consumption also saves 170,000 kilograms of CO2 emissions per year.

Packaging not only has a sustainability aspect, especially with food: Where do the challenges lie for HelloFresh?

We ship a variety of different ingredients over short and long distances. In summer and in winter. To different climate zones, from Canada to Australia. That’s why our packaging solutions have to be suitable for all kinds of weather conditions, among other things. In addition, the different ingredients in a box have different refrigeration requirements. Furthermore, depending on the country, the cold chain is subject to different legal requirements in each case. Packaging has three essential functions: It protects and preserves sensory characteristics such as taste and odor, it limits biological interactions between products, and it ensures food safety and high hygiene standards, especially for proteins such as meat and fish. For us, the challenge is to maintain the perfect balance between these functionalities, sustainability and cost efficiency. We refer to this as a “packaging compromise”.

And how do you achieve this compromise?

That can only be weighed up individually depending on the goods. We generally focus on avoiding superfluous packaging. We reduce the necessary packaging as much as possible or optimize it for recycling. Among other things, this means that we are increasingly using monomaterials. Packaging made from monomaterial makes recycling easier for our customers and increases the recycling rate. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, we have already introduced such solutions for all dairy products such as yogurt and crème fraîche.

In general, we are striving to reduce the amount of plastic and replace it with paper in particular. Our goal for the future is that all packaging materials we use in the markets we serve are certified recyclable and are actually recycled. Paper is a very good material for this. Unfortunately, paper as a packaging material cannot always replace a plastic or plastic composite, as some ingredients lack necessary properties such as oxygen and moisture barriers. Of course, we work very closely with our suppliers, machine manufacturers and institutes such as the Fraunhofer Institute to test plastic alternatives and implement them if necessary. Here, however, I would like to see more new solutions from the packaging industry that are even better optimized for recycling.

You have already reduced materials or changed packaging materials in the past. What were the most important innovations for you?

A current example is the “winter box”, which requires less insulation against heat influences. Our Canadian team was able to save 20 to 30 percent carton volume per box with this. Another example: In the UK, we introduced a lighter paper bag for meal ingredients, avoiding 56.8 tons of paper per year.

One project we are particularly proud of is the so-called Paper Pouch. In Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden, we have switched our cooling bags to 100 percent recyclable paper pouches. The Paper Pouch was the result of a collaboration between HelloFresh and students at Lund University in Sweden and a medium-sized German company. Its introduction has reduced the weight of plastic packaging by more than 50 percent per box. We are currently also working on the introduction of such a solution in Canada and the UK.

Furthermore: In the cardboard industry, people are now turning away from the thinking that more paper automatically goes hand in hand with higher box performance. We are constantly exploring new ways with our suppliers to intelligently optimize box performance in terms of paper thickness. This is no easy task: our boxes are not simply stacked on a pallet and shipped by truck. They go on a complicated journey through the postal system. However, through various optimization processes, we have already been able to reduce the paper consumption of our cardboard boxes by 23 percent.

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