A secondary role for plastics

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

RAP’s modified atmosphere Carton Food-tray is now appearing on UK supermarket shelves
RAP’s modified atmosphere Carton Food-tray is now appearing on UK supermarket shelves
‘Eliminate plastics’ may be the new battle, but one UK company has been working to minimise their role for two decades.

‘Eliminate plastics’ may be the new battle, but one UK company has been working to minimise their role for two decades.

In a current media campaign, Rapid Action Packaging (RAP) reworks the initials of its name to spell out ‘Removing Avoidable Plastics’.

The food packaging company claims to have come up with this strapline well before the government started talking about ‘eliminating avoidable plastic waste’. In fact, it claims to have been ‘walking the walk’ for a lot longer than that.

In the 20 years of RAP’s existence, its name in the UK has largely been associated with short-shelf-life packaging for sandwiches and the wider food-to-go market. But a new extension of its board-and-plastics-laminate technology is already taking the business in some quite new directions.

In early February this year, Waitrose became the first UK supermarket to commercialise RAP’s modified atmosphere (MA) Carton Food-tray for a trio of roasted turkey recipes.

“The tray is currently being used for cooked meats, but could also be used in uncooked meats, fish or ready meals, for example, with a shelf-life of up to 28 days, depending on product,” ​says founder of RAP Julian Money.

Product launch (back to top)

A second major retailer is expected to launch another cooked poultry product in the same type of packaging in late March.

The company already has an MA Carton Sandwich wedge. “But that has particularly targeted the continent and the US where customers need the extended shelf-life,” ​says Money. Dependent on many variables, including the precise gas-flushing process, this system can deliver up to 28 days.

“In fact, the majority of our customers are using between eight and 12 days,”​ he explains. “It’s in all the major German supermarkets and three of the largest US convenience chains nationwide.”

In comparison, RAP’s standard Freshpack sandwich wedge in the UK offers just two or three days beyond the day of packing.

Between the two comes the Freshpack Plus, which, by reducing oxygen ingress into the pack (but without the use of MA packaging), can extend shelf-life to four-to-five days, so reducing food waste.

Of the MA Food-tray, Money says: “We laminate film to the board, but the unique element here is how we assemble it to ensure it is tightly sealed. It’s not quite gas-tight, but we’re working on that. We believe we’re the only people in the world doing this, and we’ve protected our technology.”

Adapted technology (back to top)

Effectively, the food `tray applies an adapted version of the technology used in the extended-life carton wedge.

Current options use high-barrier polyethylene (PE). “But we’re working on a compostable alternative,” ​says Money. “We’re hoping that by the back end of the year, we’ll have a film barrier that ticks all the boxes.”

Nor does RAP’s current innovation end there. “We are the only company launching a dual-ovenable carton food-tray,”​ he states. “It’s suitable for the ready meal market, and it will handle temperatures up to 200°C.

“We believe our pack is the only one making a proper job of this and, again, we think this will be launched this year. We have a potential retail customer lined up for this, too.”

Hot wrap flexible laminate (back to top)

Adapting this thermally-resistant combination of fibre and film in a different way is the Hot Wrap flexible laminate. This allows, for example, consumers to cook vegetables in-pack in either a conventional or microwave oven. “It’s a way of increasing convenience,” ​says Money.

RAP has its head office, design and technical functions in London and manufactures all of its own packaging at two plants in Ireland. It is keenly aware of how relevant its board-based options are in a country still reeling from what might be called the ‘Blue Planet II effect’. David Attenborough’s 2017 series hardened consumer attitudes towards plastics and their impact on the environment.

“We’re very topical at the moment,”​ says Money. “The multiples are all talking to their suppliers about how to minimise plastics in packaging.”

Of course, this debate can also lead on to questions about how to separate out the fibre of the board used in RAP’s packaging from the plastics laminate.

“Just before Christmas, Waitrose launched the first example of our Easy-peel option, where the film on a sandwich wedge or tray can be peeled away from the board. The next phase is likely to include a printed graphic to guide consumers through the process,”​ says Money.

He is at once upbeat about the potential of the laminated food-tray and realistic about timescales. “We could move other categories away from plastics,”​ he says. “But bear in mind that it took 15 years for sandwich markets in the UK to move away fully from all-plastics skillets to the board-based wedge.”

RAP’s MA Carton Food-tray was first developed in 2012. Given the current climate, change could now happen quickly in this area – although the focus will remain on ease of recycling, shelf-life and other factors, too.

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