Juhana Pilkama works to reduce food’s environmental load through future package development

Plastic, and especially plastic packaging, is a concern for many – including Valio’s packaging development manager Juhana Pilkama. People are increasingly aware of plastic’s drawbacks, and plastic consumption and recycling are receiving more and more attention.

Juhana Pilkama, why do we still need plastic?

Packaging has a vitally important task – to prevent a larger environmental hazard: food waste. Plastic is needed for all food products that keep for a long time; without it, the product would spoil before it even reaches the fridge at home. That is why packaging is the good guy in this scenario. Plastic becomes a problem if it ends up in nature. Every one of us can help through our own actions and by recycling.

Why does a milk carton need plastic? What about the cap?

Nearly all Valio products require packaging that is liquid proof or water-steam proof. That means that the packaging must have a plastic layer, or the package must be fully plastic. For now, plastic is the best material for packaging food products: it protects the food, ensures hygiene and safety, and improves shelf life. The cap serves to prevent waste, making it easier to take that leftover yoghurt carton with you.

WHO?

Juhana Pilkama, 49, works at Valio as head of packaging development. He is responsible for identifying people’s packaging-related hopes and needs and refining them into smart packaging with Valio’s different functions, retailers, packaging material and machine suppliers, and food industry partners. In addition, Juhana is an expert in packaging-related questions and solves problems in production when necessary.

How much does packaging contribute to a product’s carbon footprint?

Packaging accounts for only two percent of the whole product’s environmental load. Despite that, we want to reduce the environmental load of our packaging even further. At the same time, we are working with dairy farms and others to reduce milk production’s environmental emissions.

Why is recycling so important?

Making a completely new packaging material – whether it’s plastic or cardboard – is nearly always more taxing on the environment than using recycled material, which is why recycling matters. It’s also so easy to do these days! For instance, the recycled plastic we use on packaging is the same plastic you would recycle at home. It’s sorted and cleaned carefully, and then it’s used to make new plastic products. Recycled plastic packaging generates 40-60 percent less emissions compared to virgin plastic packaging. Recycled plastic packaging is used in many of Valio’cheeses, Valio MiFU® slices and mince. All Valio's packages are recyclable.

What does it mean to have plant-based packaging?

All of Valio’s gabled milk, sour milk, cream and yoghurt cartons are fully plant-based: the cardboard is made from wood, and the thin plastic film that protects the products is made from the sugarcane industry’s waste, i.e. surplus plant parts. Even the caps are fully plant-based. It’s possible, therefore, to make plastic out of a plant – the same way biofuels are made. The caps are recycled with plastic, and the cartons with cardboard.

There are a lot of different types of plastic, and the variety of recycling instructions is confusing. If I accidentally put the wrong type of plastic into the recycling, does that ruin the entire recyclable load?

Don’t worry! All recycled plastic is sorted carefully and checked for material. Sorting machines handle possible mistakes and adds to the cost, but that is the lesser of two evils compared to throwing all your plastic in mixed waste. In other words, you don’t need to worry if you occasionally put something in the wrong recycling bin.

What kind of advice do you have for people who are just beginning to recycle?

Start with what’s easiest, like cardboard, paper, or metal package recycling. Then expand to more types – soon you’ll notice that you’re recycling most of your waste. Mother nature will thank you!

What’s most interesting to you about packaging development?

Creating new solutions that not only help people in their everyday lives, but also keep the environment in mind is what’s really interesting. No two workdays are alike, and I learn new things all the time. What’s important is to move in the right direction, to go forward. I have been a part of all kinds of projects in my years at Valio. It is the challenging projects that are most memorable to me, such as the easy to open and reopen cheese packages, recycled plastic triangle packages for cheeses, the ice cream relaunch, and, of course, the launch of the all new Valio MiFU® meat-free product family.

What do you consider to be Valio’s most important packaging development goal?

Our most important goal is to reduce food loss and promote a circular economy, such as using more recycled plastic in our packages. Reducing the amount of packaging material, using more renewable, non-fossil materials, and increased ease of use for the packages are also important. And, of course, serving our consumers with delicious products in packaging that looks good and is easy to use.

What could Valio still develop in its package designs?

Everything! Even though we are in a good place with our packaging, there are still improvements to be made everywhere. We will try to make lives better by adding easier-to-understand recycling instructions to the packages, for example. We introduced a wood-and-plastic biocomposite lid in January 2020. It can be machine-washed and reused, which reduces the need for plastic lids.

Can you tell us anything about Valio’s next big thing?

We are constantly planning all kinds of things, but one of our especially large projects has to do with Valio’s endeavour towards carbon-neutral milk by 2035. In packaging, that goal is supported by our 50-percent recycled plastic packaging for sliced cheese. That will be introduced in 2020.

Climate change is the global challenge of our era, with an effect on people as well. Through our own actions, however, we can help to make things better. We are aware of the environmental impacts of our operations, and we want to be part of the solution. Our goal is not just to reduce milk’s carbon footprint, it’s to cut it completely by 2035.

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