Packaging Possibilities: Nestlé’s Journey to Paper Packaging

Image courtesy of Nestlé Nestle-Smarties-paper-packaging-examples-ftd.jpg
Globally, all packages for Smarties candies are now using recyclable paper materials.
In a gutsy move, Nestlé totally eliminated plastic packaging from its popular Smarties candies portfolio, more than 400 stock-keeping units. Adjusting production lines to run paper packaging — at the same speeds — was key to the project’s success.

In early 2021, after just two years of planning and development, Nestlé switched all the packaging globally for its Smarties candies to recyclable paper — becoming the first global confectionery brand to do so. This was part of the company’s commitment to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.

Because the coefficient of friction of paper packaging is different from other materials, like the plastic it replaced, it doesn’t run as fast or as smoothly on a packaging line. Or at least that was our assumption. Bruce Funnell, Packaging Lead for Global Confectionery at the Nestlé Product Technology Centre in York, UK, tells a compelling story of production prowess, including:

• How the facilities were able to seal the new paper structures — and at the same line speeds;
• What production line testing they did and how;
• Which adjustments on existing packaging lines were needed;
• Details about the new dedicated packaging line installed at the Hamburg, Germany, plant.

Nestle-Bruce-Funnell-paper-pkg-quote.jpg

 

PACKAGING POSSIBILITIES - Season 2: Episode 14

If you have a topic you’d like to propose for a future PACKAGING POSSIBILITIES episode, please email Lisa Pierce at lisa.pierce@informa.com.

 

TRANSCRIPT IS AUTO GENERATED

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Hi, everybody. This is Lisa Pierce, Executive Editor of Packaging Digest, with another episode of Packaging Possibilities, a podcast that reveals what’s new and what’s next for packaging executives and engineers, designers and developers. I can’t believe how lucky we are to learn from our guest today, a packaging veteran working for Nestlé’s global confectionery business.

The world’s largest food company recently transitioned its entire Smarties candies from plastic packaging to paper packaging. Speaking to us today about this is Bruce Funnell. Bruce is the packaging lead for global confectionery working at the Nestlé Product Technology Center across the pond in York in the United Kingdom. Bruce, hello, welcome and thank you for talking with us.

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Hello, Lisa, thank you. It’s my pleasure.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
So let me quickly share a few more details about the project to set the stage for our conversation. Nestlé finished this plastic to paper switch over in 2021 and now all Smarties products are in paper packaging and those products are packaged in a variety of locations, but mainly in Germany, Hamburg I believe, The Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. So clearly a global brand.

Bruce, tell us please about all the different pack formats that you have for Smarties, please. So I’ve seen hexatubes, flow-wrap bags, lay-flat bags, standup pouches, and cartons. Anything else?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
No, exactly all of those really. So starting with a giant tube, which was a round tube of Smarties that this was the biggest single SKU [stock-keeping unit] that we had, moving, basically moving, removing the plastic end cap and replacing that with a one-piece carton format, following the hexatube, which has become an icon for us in the last years. Also, multipacks of small hexatubes, joined by in a flow wrap previously were moved to a front-and-back labels solution in paper, so again avoiding the need of plastic.

Doy-style pouches, moving from the plastic to paper; pillow bags, and of course flow wraps. Of course, there were several other applications and less obvious plastics, such as stickers, Easter egg fitments, those kinds of things. Each of those had to be obviously tackled systematically to eradicate those from our portfolio.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, so not only just the major package, the primary pack, but also any plastic components. So this was truly a switchover and a total elimination of plastic.

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Correct.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, I know that … so many different angles to look at this, but consumer satisfaction was key. So how did Nestlé involve their consumers in this change?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
So in Germany, for example, like you mentioned, Germany and Hamburg are very important operation for us. We ran consumer research to test the new paper hexagonal tube without the plastic cap versus the current before launch. And the paper packaging concept scored really well, very positive results compared to the previous version.

With the consumers really only being worried about, you know, would they … would the one-piece hexatube still be resealable? Could they still close it and retain some product for later?

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, excellent. Yes, reclosable packaging is always high at the top of the consumer preference list, no … almost no matter what the product is. But definitely when it’s a multi serve.

OK. So that’s one angle. Another angle. I’m wondering how involved were the packaging production people in the decision to switch to paper packaging or you know, maybe the better question is when did the packaging production team get involved with the project?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
I think really from the outset. So the project obviously was a collaboration between packaging experts in Nestlé, our packaging institute for example in Switzerland and the different infrastructure of Nestlé through R&D operations and supply chain. The … I mean the packaging supply chain really involved right from the start because … they are really key to be able to make this happen from both from material selection that the printing and conversion, packing, filling, logistics and our customers.

Yeah, we really had to understand end-to-end the impact and the needs and challenges as it was going to run through the supply chain.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. And we’re going to get into some of those too, in more detail, which is exciting. So, Bruce, tell us a little bit about what some of the considerations are from specifically the packaging machinery side running a new material on the packaging line.

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Yeah. You know, in the majority of cases, we had to adapt our existing manufacturing lines. You know, these are … these were designed to run on plastic.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Umm.

Bruce Funnell (guest)
So to allow those to move, you know, to allow for the careful handling this required for paper without tearing and puncturing, that was really important.

You know, sealing … sealing is another area where we had to innovate. During heat sealing, I don’t know if you know, I guess the readers will know the principles of heat sealing. But you know, the heat has to transfer quickly to the sealing layer so that we can close the pack in good time so that we don’t affect run rates and we ensure that we get an effective seal to … for the … on the package.

Paper is different. Paper is a very good insulator, so we have to find alternative ways to achieve an effective seal without slowing down production or adding more process steps.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. I think we’re going to get into some of that detail a little bit later too, but let’s first talk a little bit about the material, because I believe the project also required developing new materials for the packages, especially when you’re going from plastic pouch or a flow wrap to paper. So what were some of the innovations there on the material side?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Yeah, I think it’s important to say that, you know, first principle is that all the food we make has to be packaged well. So to ensure that it’s safe and doesn’t spoil in any way. And you know, while paper is one of the most recycled materials, when used alone, it lacks sufficient barrier and functional properties to be used for food products.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Sure, ’cause it’s porous, right, Bruce?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
It’s porous, exactly. It’s porous. You know. Anybody who’s spilled ink on paper you, you’ll see it absorb into the paper. So you know, we had to work outside. We had to work in collaboration with external partners, so suppliers, to develop paper-based alternatives that maintain the barrier and the functional properties required to keep the product safe and fresh. You know and maintain the safety and quality of the product over the shelf life.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
I know that in some other plastic-to-paper switch overs, especially with heat seal and barrier properties as you’re talking about here, there usually is a very thin inner layer of plastic still to provide that barrier, to allow that heat seal as you have, you know, the plastic-to-plastic inner seals for creating the seal. Is that what the structure is for many of your paper packs?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
So the papers use a water-based coating that effectively blocks up all of those pores that you mentioned and allows us to keep the barrier. But the important thing is to say is that those materials … it’s no more a coating, if you like, than on a on a magazine, a glossy magazine paper. So it means it can be recycled in the paper recycling stream without an issue and all of those coatings, inks, et cetera, can be removed and are removed as part of the normal paper recycling process.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, wonderful. Thank you for that. So I know that you were doing some tests on the material. Do you mind telling us a little bit more about how you were able to test those materials on the packaging line and what those tests revealed? I know that in other instances it’s a little bit difficult for a company to test a new material on a line that’s already in production for another package already, finding the time to get in. You know, to find the time to use the machine when it’s not already doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Was that an issue and did you make any changes to the material as you were going through this iterative testing process?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
We did. I mean, the important thing is to say there’s, you know, not all papers are the same. During the development process, we had found that while we selected some papers, we had to adapt them according to the application, you know, through that testing and development program to assess their performance needs. Extensive testing was performed during development. We do those in different phases from, obviously, pilot phase through to full-scale industrial trials as you mentioned.

We had, you know, certain components of the packaging lines had to be adapted and fine-tuned to ensure that Smarties are properly protected throughout the supply chain and delivering them finally to the consumer without any compromise.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. And during testing, were you able to find the time on the production equipment and fine tune it or did you have, you know, a pilot line?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Yeah, we have pilot facilities. Both pilot trials, both at suppliers, at converters, but also either in our plant, in our facilities, we’re able to do that. Everything starting obviously firstly at lab scale, small scale through to a pilot trial and then to a fully industrial trial.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, excellent. Thank you. So with this material change, you took a holistic approach during development to also improve the packages where you could. As one example, you already mentioned that hexatube multipack where you were able to add functionality to the packaging for removing one tube at a time. And also, I believe in some instances, some of the formats that we talked about, you were also able to reduce the total packaging material versus the plastic version. Can you tell us a little bit more about those developments?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
I think probably there’s a couple of examples I would draw to. Probably starting with the giant hexatube, which I think is a really good example of where we took the opportunity, not just simply to remove the plastic component, but to really look about the whole design and modifying the current design. And through that we were able to achieve a one piece compared to a multicomponent format. But also the same time reduced head space. So that lead to a total height reduction of around 10% and obviously therefore delivering greater efficiencies through the whole supply chain.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Wow. Yes. Excellent. Yes. And that was the larger hexatube. What about the multipack?

Image courtesy of NestléNestle-paper-hexatube-multipack-web.jpg

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Yeah. So coming back, yeah, that was the next point. The second example really was the hexatube multipack [above] and it’s one that I feel mostly proud, very proud of. And not only we did we eliminate the plastic collation wrapper, but we also wanted to make it easy to use. So you know to allow the consumers to tear off one tube at a time. We know how important that convenience function is for the consumer and that really did require extensive testing of several patterns, several perforation patterns, different label materials. But we believe that in the end, the effort was worth it when you see how easy it is for consumers to use and how well it performs in the supply chain.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, excellent. I’ve seen photos of it, but I don’t know … is that for sale — the hexatube multipack — is that for sale here in the US? I’ll have to look.

Bruce Funnell (guest)
I don’t believe so. I think it’s only in Europe, principally UK and Germany, I think.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, maybe next time I’m over there, I’ll look for it so I can try that functionality. I love playing with packages.

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Heh.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
So Bruce, let’s talk a moment about volume of the project because you produce a lot of Smarties and I’m just wondering, like, how you decided to pick this particular product line for this packaging change. Was volume a concern and what were some of the decisions along that way?

It’s a bold move when you're going to move more than 400 SKUs from one material to another, removing approximately 250 million packs that are sold globally every year.

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Sure. You know, volume was a concern. It’s a bold move when you're going to move more than 400 SKUs from one material to another, removing approximately 250 million packs that are sold globally every year. Tackling each of our Smarties production lines around the world within a very short time frame. It was …

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Oh, what was the time frame?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
I think it was announced January 2019 and delivered in in early 2021. So you know within a two year period and that’s quite a feat.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes.

Bruce Funnell (guest)
And a really phased approach helped, you know. However, certain lines you know, required investment in new machinery and that requires skillful coordination to ensure supply was not compromised. As you already mentioned, you know, using lines that are already running production, finding the right timing, and building up the right stocks to enable that transition to happen.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, a lot of moving parts there and quite a short time frame as you mentioned.

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Mm-hmm.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
I want to go back just for a second to talk about the barrier properties or the performance properties of the material though. And I bring this up because in other conversations that I’ve had with food companies over the last couple of years, partially because of some product rationalization because of COVID and supply chain issues, there’s been some talk about shelf life and how if you’re … if you are able to shorten the shelf life, sometimes you can gain some sustainable packaging advantages because of that. Whether it’s, you know, going to a less complex structure that’s more easily recycled or shortening the pack like the headsp … minimizing the head space in your hexatube, things like that. Did you have any of those issues when you were looking at this package change for the product?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Yeah, I think you know it’s important that all the food we make is packaged well, you know, to ensure that it’s safe, doesn’t spoil in any way. And you know, while paper is one of the most recycled products, when used alone, as we’ve mentioned, it lacks sufficient barrier and functional properties to be used for food products. So that was where we had to develop paper-based alternatives that maintain the barrier and the functional properties, ensuring the safety and quality of the product over the shelf life.

While paper is one of the most recycled products, when used alone, ... it lacks sufficient barrier and functional properties .... So that was where we had to develop paper-based alternatives that maintain the barrier and the functional properties, ensuring the safety and quality of the product over the shelf life.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, before we hear more from Bruce about the new packaging line that Nestlé installed and lessons learned from this project, let’s take a short break for a special message.

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Lisa Pierce here with Packaging Digest. If you are enjoying this podcast, I’ve got good news for you. There are more episodes with insights from other packaging executives at brand owner companies, including tuna giant Bumble Bee Foods, food and confections leader Mars, alcohol beverage manufacturer Absolut, and snack king Frito-Lay. Find these and other conversations at packagingdigest.com slash packaging hyphen possibilities hyphen podcast. www.packagingdigest.com/packaging-possibilities-podcast Now back to our current episode to learn more.

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Lisa McTigue Pierce
So Bruce, some existing packaging lines you had mentioned were adjusted to run the new materials. But kind of exciting that you were able to also install a totally new packaging line for the tall paper tubes. I’m assuming that’s the tall hexatube, correct?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Yeah, correct. Yes. Yeah.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, tell us about this new packaging line. Is it dedicated to that particular package?

Image courtesy of NestléNestle-paper-hexatube-web.jpg

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Yeah, the hexatube is produced from one piece of board, so it required a totally new machine. In essence, it’s a scaled-up version of the standard text tube with some changes. It was designed to be as flexible as possible so that we could accommodate different size options to allow flexibility for today, but also for the future.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. And the packaging line, it was a total new line with new machinery?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Yeah, it was a new investment. It was a €10 million investment into the Hamburg factory and that line formed part of that investment.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, excellent. So for the paper packages, controlling that sealing time and the temperature is critical so that you get a secure seal without burning through the paper, as you had mentioned earlier. So what changes … What did you have to change on the on the packaging line when you went from the plastic bags to paper and are you able to run at the same speeds as you were, knowing that the coefficient of friction is quite different from plastic to paper?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Yeah, I think it comes back to the question that we had earlier. You know, where sealing was an area where we had to innovate. We have, we use both cold seal mechanisms and heat seal mechanisms. So for flow wraps cold seal, we had to adapt the adhesive, the lacquers, and the application process had to be developed.

But with heat sealing, you know, as I mentioned, paper is a good insulator. So we had to find alternative ways to quickly heat the seal area to achieve an effective seal without slowing down production or adding more process steps. So specifically we didn’t need to slow down the lines to enable this to happen.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Excellent. I’m sure, you know, running at the volumes that you’re running, that was a a pretty important, a pretty important metric to hold.

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Absolutely.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Umm, yeah. So I’m just curious, you’ve mentioned heat seal, cold seal. But on the heat-sealing side, is ultrasonics something that you considered or looked at or is it still just using the heat and pressure sealing technology that we’re all used to?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
As I said, I can’t talk about specifics, but what, you know, we were able to adapt with known sealing technologies the different … to meet the different needs of paper versus plastic.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, excellent. So according to the Hamburg, Germany, plant manager, Arturo, and it’s his last name, Calvin.

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Galvan. Arturo Galvan. Yeah.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Galvan. OK, thank you. He says that more than 200 people were involved in that particular project. I believe that the new packaging line for the hexatube. Who was the lead for that project and how was that person able to coordinate with all the people in the departments that had to have been involved?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Yeah, you know, they … the paper packaging project was a truly global effort led by, you know, Nestlé packaging experts that are in the R&D center here in York, Nestlé Product Technology Center in the UK, and in close collaboration with the Institute of Packaging Sciences in Lausanne in Switzerland and other cross-functional Nestlé teams. And of course the factories. But we had a specific project team in place that ensured effective collaboration across all of these. And effective communication across the whole organization. And that was really fundamental and key to making this a success.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes. One of the things that I’ve been learning is that people have been giving career advice to packaging engineers, saying that they should also learn how to be a project manager because a lot of times they’re fulfilling that role because packaging does interface with all these different departments. So was packaging the lead in this project then?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Packaging was obviously core to the technology change. So we weren’t really changing … the product formulation was not the main focus of the of the project. So packaging was the focus but obviously involved way beyond packaging. So engineering, manufacturing, supply chain.

Our business commercial teams were heavily involved because we also wanted to make sure that the, those efforts were well communicated to consumers and that they understand, understood the rationale for the change and were taken along with us on the journey — because, ultimately, we’re doing it for the benefit of all.

We also wanted to make sure that those efforts were well communicated to consumers and that they understood the rationale for the change and were taken along with us on the journey — because, ultimately, we’re doing it for the benefit of all.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Wonderful. Thank you, Bruce. What was the biggest automation challenge you had because of this packaging change and why? And then how was it solved?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Adapting packaging lines that were originally designed for plastic to run paper without compromising on quality and line performance, that was really the key challenge. So to do that then you talk to little bit about how we did that. It really required extensive root-cause problem-solving to overcome the challenges and to go through those iterative innovation cycles, so that we’re able to knock down the problems one by one and ensure that we have a sustained performance going forward.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Thank you. So last question, Bruce, if you had to … you know, thinking of what you’ve been through over the last couple of years during this project, what lessons would you say that you learned from it?

Bruce Funnell (guest)
I think the most important thing is to have a clear ambition with unwavering commitment from everybody involved. Pure focus. Collaborating and solving problems as one team. With that you can make things happen that when you look at it beforehand you might think, OK, how are we going to do this? But taking that approach, you can do incredible things.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Wonderful advice. Thank you so much. I’m so glad we had an opportunity to talk, Bruce.

Bruce Funnell (guest)
Thank you, Lisa. My pleasure.

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