IIC Packaging is one of the leading suppliers of individual food packaging in Europe. The Freiburg-based company, which has sales offices in Great Britain, Australia and Hong Kong, develops bespoke injection-moulded and thermoformed sustainable food packaging for all key sectors of the food industry. Here, director of sales and marketing Dirk Wohlgemuth, discusses his role in the business and the challenges ahead for frozen brands.
Dirk Wohlgemuth moved to the UK 20 years ago to help with the sales and distribution of IIC’s products to the UK and Australia.
Prior to the pandemic, he spent most of the week travelling to the company’s production sites and to customers, but now like so many of us, his day is punctuated by phone calls and virtual meetings. The upside, as well as having more quality family time, is that he is spending more time developing packaging ideas.
Food manufacturers from 40 countries use IIC’s award-winning concepts, for everything from ice cream to frozen fruit and vegetables, as well as organic and vegetarian products.
One of these was Aldi’s rainbow ice-cream, which was sold in the UK for 10 weeks from June 2020 as a special limited edition. The retailer donated 50 pence per package sold to the NHS and the Teenage Cancer Trust.
IIC provided the ice cream packs at a discounted price, but Dirk describes it as a ‘challenging project due to the required speed to market’.
He notes: “From artwork to delivery we had less than two weeks and COVID-19 obviously didn’t help.”
With the aim of raising as much money as possible, commissioning a limited-edition product and packaging was a smart move. According to Dirk, it means ‘food manufacturers can increase the incentive to buy and thus achieve higher sales in the short term’.
He also sees it as a sustainability win, adding: “In my experience, limited-edition product packaging is re-used more often because the packaging has a curiosity and collector’s appeal. However, this is highly dependent on the packaging design. We see that a high proportion of our packaging is re-used and we pay attention to re-use and recycling right from the development phase in order to close the loop.”
Of course, sustainability is a critical issue for the packaging industry, and something IIC has at the heart of its values. The headquarters of IIC remain in Freiburg, also known as the ‘Green City’ for its sustainability concepts, innovation and environmentally-friendly solutions.
As a producer of 600 million food packaging items per year, IIC is acutely aware of its ecological responsibility, so when developing new packaging concepts, particular attention is paid to the principles of reduce, reuse and recycle, as well as the development of new sustainable materials.
One example is IIC’s grass paper packaging. Already popular on the continent for fruit and vegetable packaging, Dirk describes it as ‘an alternative to the current Kraft paper offering as it helps reduce the CO2 emissions by 25% in comparison to conventional or recycled cartons and is also fully recyclable’.
But how realistic is the idea that alternatives to traditional packaging, and especially plastics, will become mainstream in the near future?
Dirk says: “Alternatives need to fulfil a lot requirements: they need to make a tangible improvement to the environment, need to be produced efficiently and provide all the benefits that plastic does, such as being hygienic, recyclable and safe for food, and provide the shelf life to reduce food waste.
“We have tried several materials, including tapioca starch, olive stones, sugarcane and PLA (polylactic acid). Unfortunately none are real solutions yet in terms of production process, recyclability, degradability, availability and sustainability. However, all our current packaging is 100% recyclable.”
So the holy grail of packaging is something that’s affordable to produce, easy to process after use and truly sustainable. But does Dirk think it’s possible to tick all these boxes?
“Yes, I think it is possible as there are many developments in terms of materials, like chemically recycled polypropylene, and production technologies are improving all the time to help reduce weight and use less energy. Plus there are now better recycling processes, allowing for a more efficient circular economy. We invest a lot of time in research and development and have some exciting new concepts on the horizon.
“I think there will be loads of developments coming to the market over the next few years. We will go through a period of innovation with different materials, production methods driven by the need for a circular economy and the necessary reduction in plastic.”
In terms of the specific challenges around creating packaging for frozen food, we know it needs to be easy to produce and process, suitable for freezing whilst protecting the food inside, and able to stand out in the freezer cabinet.
But can frozen brands also harness the power of packaging to boost the image of frozen food?
Dirk advises: “I think the brands should look more at using different formats, shapes and designs to do this. I believe in this way products can differentiate themselves in the market to have a better shelf appeal. But one of the most positive things brands can do in terms of packaging design is ensure their products are easy to open and user-friendly for the customer.”