Cover new ground

By John Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Carbon footprint, Packaging, Bioplastic

Cover new ground
What is food packaging for? A simple question. Its job is to contain the food and keep it clean, safe and secure until it is used. It should be easy to handle from production through to distribution and sale. It should enable consumers to identify the food inside and read how to store it properly and use it correctly. And it should be easy to open. Food packaging should also be easy to dispose of, recycle, or re-use.

Simple enough. Or is it? There are growing concerns now that, in order for food companies to slash packaging and delivery costs, reduce packaging waste, and go 'green' by shrinking their carbon footprint, many may have gone too far in their rush towards 'lightweighting' and biodegradable packaging. The result is packaging that is more susceptible to damage, with shorter shelf-lives, leading to food waste.

A recent survey by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that £9bn of avoidable food waste was being dumped in England and Wales each year. And a major culprit is inadequate or oversized packaging. Packaging that tears, leaks, breaks or gets damaged from factory to fridge wastes food. Packs that contain too much food for the consumer to use by the-best-before date also waste food.

But the drive towards lightweighting may be coming to an end, believes Alan Campbell, responsible for food packaging at Campden BRI. "People have taken most of the weight out of their packs. So they are now looking at producing sustainable packs in which the product is actually protected. We are getting the balance back where the packaging is fit for purpose rather than just being lightweight.

"The packs that tend to be damaged are the lighter ones. It comes back to the question: Is the packaging suitable for the way it is handled?"

Package damage and waste

Campbell's colleague Lynneric Potter at Campden BRI is heading up a two-year research programme into whether there is a link between pack damage and food waste. "We are looking at why the damage is occurring and the types of pack being affected."

Potter will be following a plastic pack, a glass pack, and a metal pack through the supply chain from factory to shop to see how damage occurs. "At the moment we are doing a canned beverage product,"​ she says. The aim is to look at the damage that is occurring and then work out how. Potter says a lot of damage is caused by the way packs are handled. "Packs are being dropped; they're not being packed properly; they are not being stored correctly; and they are not being put on the shelf properly.

"There's been a lot of lightweighting going on, so we will be looking at a standard beverage can and a lightweighted can to see how much force it takes to damage them. People are lightweighting their packs but they are still stacking them in exactly the same way, and packing them in the same way. But they can't take the same weight as they could before.

"We are looking at primary and tertiary packaging and hopefully we will eventually be able to offer advice on improved packaging design and improved handling methods."

According to Campbell, food companies are also moving away from using biodegradable packaging materials because the whole issue of biodegradable or compostable packaging doesn't really fit with some of the longer shelf-lives required in the food industry. "Take the 'ultimate package', the retortable microwaveable rice pack, for example. If that can be made from biodegradable and compostable material, then you have cracked it. But when you think of the demands the material has to go through heat processes at 121°C for 30 minutes, and then a 12- to 18-month shelf-life it is difficult to achieve that in a biodegradable or compostable material."

Consumer objections

And there are consumer objections to 'green' packaging, too, he says. When PepsiCo introduced crisps in packets made from environmentally friendly polylactic acid (PLA), consumers objected. They ignored the fact that the PLA polymer was made from renewable resources such as tapioca waste or sugar-cane waste. What they didn't like was that the packs were too noisy, says Campbell. "From an environmental point of view the PLA pack is very good. But from the consumer point of view it was just too noisy."

The use of plant waste material to make 'green' polythene plastic packaging rather than growing crops specially such as corn to make bioplastics from cornstarch is growing, says Campbell. "In future, recyclable/sustainable 'green' packing may be made from plant waste."​ But, he warns: "Although packaging firms are suddenly realising that they can make these wonderful materials, can they actually use them for food products?"

BPI Films makes polyethylene film for packaging applications. Mark Vernon, commercial director, agrees that companies are looking for value for money in their packaging. However there's an underlying performance that the pack must achieve. "Only then can you start to see how to make it as efficiently as possible."

Polythene has a lot to offer in terms of weight and gauge reduction, he says. "And as new polymers have come along they have enabled us to maintain or enhance the performance of the film while giving a material that can be recycled, therefore reducing the overall environmental impact."

As a result, he says, people have moved away from biodegradable materials. "There is still a significant cost penalty and a density penalty in going with compostable materials in applications where compostable is not an integral part of what the pack does. People are looking more at standard polyethylenes to see how they can reduce the amount, and also how they can subsequently be recovered and recycled. People are recognising the case for recycling as opposed to composting."

Carbon footprints

The Carbon Trust helps firms measure and certify the carbon footprint of the products and services they provide, says Richard Johnston, head of certification. "We are talking about greenhouse gas emissions carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases that are involved throughout a product's life cycle." ​And depending on the food, packaging can often have a very minor role in a product's carbon footprint, he says.

"Looking at the more carbon intensive products such as beef and dairy products, then their carbon footprints are very high. For 1kg of beef, the carbon footprint can range from 15kg of carbon dioxide to 30kg. That equates roughly to driving 50 to 150 miles in a car.

"By comparison the packaging for beef has almost negligible impact on the carbon footprint. It almost doesn't matter how you package it; it's really all about the methane the cows produce on farms. Another example is a loaf of bread where the packaging is probably only about 2% of the overall carbon footprint. With bread the carbon footprint comes from the growing of the crops that go into it and the baking process. And obviously we use energy when we toast it or freeze it."

So, potentially, companies could improve the design of food packaging to increase shelf-life, says Johnston, so reducing food waste. "And with some products, like beef, a modest increase in the carbon associated with the packaging in order to extend the shelf-life or use-by date could have knock-on savings. There would be less food waste and thus an overall reduction in the carbon footprint."

Another idea might be to look at bags of salad, says Johnston's colleague Daniel Davies. "With those big bags of salad there can be quite a bit of waste because the salad goes off very quickly. So why not have individual pouches for salad that keep the salad fresher for longer? It would involve a minimal increase in the packaging carbon footprint while reducing food waste."

Keith Barnes, chairman of The Packaging Society, is not a big fan of biodegradable packaging, either. "Biodegradability is brilliant in the laboratory: But if I went to Tesco and bought all my stuff in a biodegradable bag, came outside and it was raining, and it suddenly degraded, then I wouldn't be very happy."

Two-week sandwiches

What he is a fan of is modified atmosphere packs for sandwiches. There are now methods to provide sandwich packs that will technically last on the shelf for at least two weeks, maybe longer, he says. "I first saw it on a stand at a recent packaging exhibition. They had sandwiches that they guaranteed would last for four weeks. These sandwiches had been made in Italy for the show, so were already a week old. I had one there and took another one home and kept it for another week and a half. It was as fresh as the one I had at the show. It was phenomenal.

"I believe we will see a move to a lot more refill packing refill packs, or flexible stand-up pouches that you put into your container or storage jar at home. One example is Kenco Coffee. They now sell a pouch with the coffee in and the idea is that you put in into your container at home. Coffee is usually sold in a glass jar and so the refill pack saves weight and money on delivery. And it can be recycled.

"Reducing food waste is more important than reducing packaging waste. And one way you can cut down food waste is by better packaging that will make sure that the food doesn't get wasted. And if you are not going to eat it, then at least it is going to stay fresher longer."

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