PIL: Curving a Niche in Sustainable Flexible Packaging.
With more than 35 years of experience in flexible packaging, Packaging Industries Limited (PIL) prides itself as a leading provider of high-quality, sustainable flexible packaging for food, beverage, healthcare, agriculture, home and personal care. The company specializes in extended shelf-life packaging, giving products longer life and reducing food waste.
“Our packaging is designed to cater for our client’s requirements and is customized to their needs. Our products are practical, affordable, and most importantly, environmentally sustainable,” says Vaishali Malde, Sales, Marketing and Sustainability Manager at Packaging Industries Limited (PIL).
From its operational base in Nairobi, Kenya with approximately 300 staff, the company serves its clients across East and Southern Africa with direct and indirect exports to the European market.
“We believe that our agility and ability to optimize the full operating model across strategy, structure, processes, people, technology, development, and innovation by going after flat and fluid structures built around a high-performing cross-functional team while instituting more frequent prioritization and resource allocation processes is our strength,” adds Vaishali.
According to her, the company has established a paradigm shift away from multi-layered reporting structures, rigid annual budgeting, and a separation of business and technological innovation. She observes that the discontinuity and change of this magnitude has given them a competitive advantage. She adds that this transformation has improved efficiency, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and operational performance with a turbocharged innovation.
Award Winning Innovative Packaging Products
PIL’s agility has seen the company win the Packaging innovation awards for 3 years consecutively.
In 2020, PIL won Gold award for their Mama Silage bag, an innovation developed to allow fodder storage for small-scale dairy farmers for up to 2 years without deteriorating its nutritional quality. As part of its strong collaboration with their various actors in the dairy value chain, PIL says it is committed to providing localized, innovative and sustainable solutions for improved dairy farming across the region.
In 2021, they also won a Diamond finalist award for the Mavuno Bora Hermetic bag – a sustainable and responsible packaging solution to ensure food security.
“With the adoption of Mavuno Bora hermetic bags, farmers can store their harvests for extended periods and utilize them during critical seasons rather than selling their yields immediately after harvests for fear of associated postharvest losses,” she explains.
The other accolade was the Gold award in 2022 for a Lightweight Nutra-milk Flexible pouch in Collaboration with 260 Brands in Zambia. Their collaboration partner, 260 brands, was looking to provide a nutritious non-dairy product to improve consumer health, combat hunger, and reduce food waste.
The packaging designed for this product needed to support the extended shelf life and withstand long road transits to reach developing communities.
“This rural reach had limited infrastructure development, and refrigerated storage wasn’t an option. We then had to put together a solution that is a lightweight barrier pillow pouch with excellent mechanical performance and supporting extended shelf life. The packaging has been designed to transport and store without refrigeration, overcoming cold chain logistics challenges,” she adds.
For an industry in a developing country, their recognition with Packaging Innovation awards affirms that innovation doesn’t have to come from first-world countries for adoption in the developing countries, where in many cases, it fails to work as it is not localized.
“The award gives us the positivity to keep developing sustainable solutions that are localized for our markets and sustainable for the environment and the awards spotlight our actions and the sectors we represent in Africa.”
Overcoming Plastic Ban in Kenya
The Plastic Bag Ban with a 6-month allowance for Kenyans to transition to alternative items announced by the Kenyan Government in 2017 was in indeed a big threat to the business founded some 35 years ago by Mr. Navin Raichand Haria.
Limited information on the notices led to a chaotic understanding of the legislation with interpretation of banned plastic bags restricted to a few words, which many ordinary users could not understand, assuming a blanket ban on all packaging yet the scope was only on carrier bags, flat bags used in non-industrial settings, and waste garbage bags.
The prevailing attitude towards the legislation was that it was written in stone; however, following numerous interactions and lobbying with the authorities, they found some clarification on the ban and invested in technologies to manufacture alternatives to the scope of the ban.
“We believe that the environmental legislation must be alert to new challenges and opportunities and be amendable to face them as the authorities’ work on ensuring the development of infrastructure to support the segregation, collection, sorting, and recycling of waste,”
She adds that a successful address of plastic pollution would need a regional level of legislation through synchronization of our environmental policies with the East African community to ensure the circulation of banned items through the porous borders stops.
Innovative Products to Reduce Food Waste
With the ever changing consumer tastes and preferences, PIL has designed product categories to fill this gap with specific emphasis on packaging designed to reduce food waste.
“Food packaging is often viewed as having a negative impact on the environment. However, packaging can protect food, prolong shelf life, and reduce environmental impact by reducing food waste.
She adds that consumer knowledge and levels of awareness, interests, and appreciation of these packaging functions are significant factors in their refusal or acceptance of emerging packaging technologies, whether those technologies are directed explicitly at reducing food waste or not and that consumers’ complex relationship with food packaging creates a barrier to food-saving practices.
Vaishali says that in as much as the current global trend is to have recyclable packaging, at Packaging Industries Limited, they often prioritize packaging design to reduce food waste before considering its recyclability.
“We focus on innovation that tackles both problems of packaging sustainability and food waste prevention in tandem. We design beyond merely getting the product to the consumer and instead embrace taking responsibility for consumers’ climate impacts from downstream food waste,” she adds.
She further explains that educating consumers on the tradeoffs between packaging sustainability and food waste is often difficult adding that on average, only 3-3.5% of the climate impact of packaged food comes from the packaging itself – the rest comes from producing, transporting, storing, preparing, and potentially disposing of the food.
This proportion she says can be significantly higher for certain kinds of foods and formats, but ultimately, packaging “pays off” if it helps to reduce waste of the food it contains by at least 4%.
That means that companies should prioritize strategies that reduce food waste even when packaging creates climate impact. Alongside designing out waste, they work on the opportunity for the packaging designed for recyclability.
“We intensely focus on developing packaging to prevent food waste, meet climate goals, and integrate features that consumers value and appreciate.”
On their circular packaging designs, she says that more and more people seek a greener, environmentally friendly, sustainable, and circular packaging design that will not end up in an ocean or landfill.
One after another, she says that companies have declared plans to cut waste and move toward the ultimate goal: recyclable packaging.
“Our research and development team engineer solutions to drive this shift without compromising on processors’ other priorities for product quality, product shelf life, manufacturing efficiency, packaging mechanics and more.”
We intensely focus on developing packaging to prevent food waste, meet climate goals, and integrate features that consumers value and appreciate.
Vaishali Malde, Sales, Marketing & Sustainability Manager, PIL.
Extending shelf life of highly perishable fresh produce
Packaging Industries limited has worked with various perishable food packers across the for several decades and has since developed a specialty in designing packages to increase the shelf life, prevent discoloring, and preserve freshness and flavor, all while ensuring an aesthetically pleasing shelf appeal.
Its expertise is on Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) which alters the atmosphere inside packaging containing perishable foods (for example, fresh vegetables, meat, and fish to increase the shelf life of the product contained.
The technology works by reducing the amount of oxygen (which supports lipid oxidation reactions and high respiration rates) and replacing it with other gases, reducing and delaying unwanted reactions.
“We focus on designing packaging for fresh produce based on the desired shelf life, quantity of a product, and the harvesting, transporting, storing, and shelf life temperatures to ensure minimal waste.”
PIL also offers Cryofrozen Fruit Packaging technology which extends shelflife of produce for up to 1 year under low temperature storage conditions. Cryofreezing is becoming a popular preservation and export method for many fruits in Kenya such as berries and avocadoes. Cryonics is used to freeze the fruits and is an innovative and effective method of safeguarding the supply of these seasonal fruits.
Changing Consumer Trends
Vaishali notes that consumer trends for effective packaging solutions have drastically changed over time and that sustainability agendas are being focused on globally.
‘There is immense interest in transitioning of other packaging formats to flexible packaging as they are designed to minimize the use of packaging materials, highly customizable, lightweight, and boast a low product-to-packaging ratio.
“Flexible packaging provides sustainability benefits and significant value to producers, consumers, and retailers and these packaging solutions call for less transportation and storage space than their counterparts, reducing fuel consumption and toxic carbon emissions.”
Flexible packaging demand 40% less shipping space than rigid alternatives when empty and requires less landfill space when they end up in the environment.
The increase of environmental concerns and increasing sustainability awareness has also drawn more global attention to the use of water-based inks in flexographic printing.
“We will be focusing on shifting to water-based inks that consist of much less organic solvent with lower Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emission issues.”
She explains that as PIL works around designing for recycling, they are looking at investing in an in-house recycling facility to recover their process wastes as they keep the loop closed for the post-industrial waste.
The company also has systems in place to ensure no contamination of this waste, PIL can easily recover the material and use it in producing packaging for non-food contact applications. This she says would also help reduce the virgin plastic they use in some applications and have an overall lower carbon footprint.
Investing in Research & Development
Vaishali Malde who joined the company in 2016 as a sales representative and later made the Sales and Marketing Manager says that the path to the perfect package design is best taken as a team, with experts in machine, material, and process, each leading the way through their specialty.
“Our process includes Packaging Development Manager(s) who specialize in packaging designs and are up on current trends in the packaging industry globally and guide the entire packaging design. They also collaborate with our supply chain partners to bring you new ideas and cutting-edge technology,” Vaishali explains.
The vastly experienced flexible packaging industry expert adds that their Research and Development team creates customer-focused innovation by continually testing new materials, inks, coatings, adhesives, and more and once they determine the best material and specifications for our client’s requirements, they continue to provide field support throughout the development, market entrance and transition.
“As we engineer for recyclability, we constantly advocate for light weighting to reduce the amount of plastic used by our brand owner. We also work on ensuring the functional features of the packaging are designed to minimize the environmental impact of our packaging.”
A champion for Extended Producer Responsibility
However, a detailed analysis of the Act has revealed that it has not effectively dealt with the issues of plastic waste and its associated problems and the Act does not specifically address the issue related to plastic waste management. According to Vaishali, the failure to incorporate a long-term solution to address the problem of plastic waste has been the key limitation of existing policies on Waste management and as a result, addressing the littering of plastic bags and plastic bottles and as such has been difficult and there is no long-term solution to the problem.
She explains that specific steps to advance waste management in Kenya have already been taken by both the private and public sectors with the most notable development being the initiation of a system of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).
This EPR system is currently supported by upcoming public and private-sector regulations, most prominently through the Kenya Extended Producer Responsibility Organization (KEPRO), focusing on all plastic waste fractions.
Despite certain challenges and the requirement to further develop the policy framework, the EPR regulations represent the most promising approach for addressing current deficiencies of the Kenyan waste management sector and all these actions need to be considered as pieces of a wider puzzle.
“At Packaging Industries Limited, we actively participate and interact with other platforms and policy bodies. We share our opinions, intelligence and knowledge with policy and regulatory bodies through their public participation and workshops to highlight our recommendations in their frameworks.”
She adds that building a holistic and robust waste management framework and hence effectively mitigating the problem of littered plastics is a cross-cutting task that involves policymakers on all levels of government, businesses, and civil society all at once.
“Next to a continuous improvement and development of the regulatory framework, actions to improve ease of waste management may also be taken specifically to plastic fractions and items prevalent in Kenya.”
She goes on to say that authorities could consider various ways of addressing the policy and regulatory loopholes by investing in waste management infrastructure to curb the adverse effects on the waste management system and the environment.
“For plastic packaging, the authority should give clear guidelines on changes in design for increased recyclability and eliminate the chances of it ending up as litter in the environment. Nevertheless, particularly the further operationalization of the EPR system is supposed to play a key role in enabling the successful and efficient advance of these strategies and reducing the adverse effects of waste management practices.”
Vaishali says that the company’s focus was on designing for recyclability and a circular economy. However, challenges are abounding.
“It may seem an obvious fix to move to recyclable packaging, but putting this into practice is far more complicated. There are lots of decisions to be made throughout the supply chain that can turn redesigning packaging into a time-consuming process.”
She adds that from production lines to design, it can take years for a brand to finalize a sustainable packaging strategy, making progress seem slower than it is. In addition, the financial and time costs of revamping a packaging strategy from top-to-bottom is incredibly high.
“Massive investment is needed. While larger companies may have the funds to do this, smaller players struggle, particularly after many suffered significant economic hits from the pandemic.”
Vaishali explains that sustainable and recyclable packaging is more in demand than ever, yet the packaging industry on a global scale is at a crossroads. While the traditional practices and old packaging design are effective in protecting food and getting it to the consumers, avoiding the circular economy is not a viable plan for the long term.
“A combination of redesigning packaging and technological advancement can make a big difference. It doesn’t have to be a radical overhaul overnight, but with constant improvement in design, we can provide sustainable solutions for the long-run. We have embraced design for recycling for a circular economy and we hope our peers can join us in this journey as we make packaging environmentally friendly.”
This feature appeared in the March 2023 issue of Sustainable Packaging Africa Magazine. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE