Food Packaging - Villain to hero? (Michelman)

Packaging in general, and food packaging specifically has long been viewed as an environmental hazard, and one that should be minimized wherever possible. As a result, packaging companies have devoted enormous resources and countless hours designing and developing ingenious new packaging systems that focus primarily on a reduction in materials.  

As a leader in the development of coatings for packaging materials, we have worked with professionals throughout the supply chain to support these efforts.  When we consider environmental impact, we must also look at the contents of the packaging – the food itself.   

Food Waste on the Rise

In recent years, food production, as well as food waste that ends up in our landfills has become a major concern.  Rather than focusing on additional food production to feed a growing planet, there is an opportunity to reduce or prevent food waste through improved packaging designed to prolong the life of, or more effectively protect the food itself. This has become a theme for rallying the support of consumer groups, commercial enterprises and governmental bodies. Estimates of food waste from harvest to consumer range as high as 50%.    The European Commission estimates that food waste amounted to 89 million tonnes in 2009, 11% of all the food produced in Europe. In the UK alone, it was estimated that in 2008 consumers threw away about 30% of the country’s food supply. Additionally, wasted food makes its way to landfills where it occupies space, decomposes, and produces carbon dioxide and methane greenhouse gases.

Through new package sizes and configurations, as well as the use of packaging materials that prolong the shelf life of perishable foods, food packaging designers can play a critical role in the effort to reduce food waste.

The Critical Role of Barrier Coatings

Coatings can be used to improve, alter or modify barrier properties of packaging materials, allowing the development of specific food contact materials for specific food products. There are several ways that a barrier function can be built into a packaging material. All flexible packaging materials have some level of permeability to oxygen, carbon dioxide and water vapour.  By controlling this permeability for a particular food it is possible to control and extend the shelf life of food products.

Flexible Packaging Solutions

Flexible packaging may consist of a monolayer formed from a single plastic, but most barrier packaging materials are multilayer structures formed using different polymers.  By carefully selecting each component layer, it is possible to design a flexible packaging solution that possesses desired barrier properties because each layer can be incorporated in such a way that it compensates for weaknesses in another. Multilayer constructions can be manufactured by co-extrusion, lamination or coating.

Taking packaging a step further, the development and use of active packaging materials is on the rise.  Active packaging is packaging in which subsidiary constituents are included in or on the packaging material or the package headspace to enhance the performance of the packaging system.   The use of an active package increases a product’s shelf life without reducing its nutrients or adding unwanted tastes or odours, all while maintaining food texture and appearance.

Paper-Based Packaging Solutions

A wide range of materials and processes are employed in the creation of adequate barriers against fats, oils and water on paper-based packaging, including folding cartons.  There have been improvements in curtain coating techniques and processes at the paper mill, as well as development, driven by the need to reduce costs, of numerous water-based coatings. New developments are ongoing and are focused on areas such as biotechnology, anti-microbial compounds and more.

The Challenge

As a developer of barrier coatings designed for flexible and paper based packaging, we see the challenges becoming more complex for functional, financial and environmental reasons.  Some food stuffs such as fresh fruit and vegetables need to respire, while others need low permeability barriers for preservation or protection from migratory contaminants. There is also gathering interest in making packaging ‘active’ rather than passive to extend the quality of food on its journey to the consumer.  Intelligent packaging systems contain internal or external indicators that provide retailers and consumers information that may include the history of the package, the quality of the contents, and temperature. 

The industry as a whole has made great strides minimizing the impact food packaging has on the environment.  There is intense attention paid to the materials used, coatings applied, and the ultimate recyclability of packaging.    If we do a better job understanding and communicating the immense impact food waste has on the environment, and the role packaging plays in reducing the amount of spoiled food that goes into landfills, perhaps we can change the public’s view of packaging from villain to hero.

Robin Cooper

Global Marketing Manager, Print & Packaging

Michelman

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