The use of plastic in food production and distribution has become a very hot topic. Plastics are incredibly versatile, which explains their popularity, and product and process development has thrived on this versatility.
Plastics are designed to be durable – able to withstand bending and twisting, for example. They provide a strong barrier to protect products physically and against water and gas exchange. When selected properly, they are stable for a range of products and processes. While these qualities are ideal for distribution, shelf-life and safety, their durability is, of course, what causes environmental concerns.
Hurdles to overcome
To replace plastics there are many hurdles to overcome and issues to consider. Bioplastics such as polylactide (PLA) provide promising options. But like other alternatives they are not ideal for all applications.
These have to take account of aspects that can compromise pack integrity (for example, through degradation) and product appearance (for example, discolouration) – like product pH, processing temperatures and storage conditions.
Compostable materials provide benefits, but consumers need better guidance, for example, that ‘compostable’ does not necessarily mean ‘suitable for home composting’.
This highlights wider consumer confusion about recycling. What materials can and cannot be recycled? Where should I put what? Should different parts of the pack be separated – film from tray, top from bottle?
Reverting to more traditional materials like glass or metal is not necessarily the answer – given the energy needed in production and the distribution of materials that can be heavier.
Campden BRI is conducting a research project looking at the technical challenges of reducing and replacing plastic packaging. But in the search for a straightforward panacea, nothing yet ticks all the boxes – technically and holistically. Progress is being made, but the search – or should I say research – goes on.