Food For Thought – Why Genuine Food Packaging Sustainability Needs Critical Consideration

Stephanie Poole – Business Development & Retail Manager, North West Food Packaging,  Sealed Air

With food processors and retailers striving to enhance sustainability, packaging experts Sealed Air urge the industry to place a focus on food security and shelf-life as an effective approach to reducing waste and improving resource usage.

Rethinking food packaging

Sustainability continues to be a priority for shoppers. A July 2020 report by PwC[1] shows 43% of consumers internationally expect businesses to be accountable for their environmental impact. Demand for such accountability is likely to become even greater following recent global events, which are changing how people shop and eat. Consumers are adapting to more digital ways of living and thinking much more about the foods they purchase and how these are produced, packaged and transported.

The evolving sustainability trend and associated purchasing behaviour is increasingly encouraging food processors and retailers to rethink how they do business. They realise their products need to be more relevant than ever to consumers, which is seeing them reconsider their choice of packaging materials. Businesses are eager to switch from plastic packaging to alternatives they believe are ‘greener’. However, without the proper consideration, this can actually lead to companies swapping to packaging which is less sustainable due to lower levels of protection and compromised food security. This is especially true when packaging fresh, short shelf-life foods such as meat and fish.

Similarly, not properly thinking about all of the different performance characteristics and wider benefits of plastic packaging can see companies make the wrong choices when swapping. They can actually end-up switching to materials and systems that have higher carbon footprints. Food processors and retailers are absolutely right to rethink food packaging, but in doing so, must start by looking beyond the negativity surrounding plastic to ensure they arrive at the right solution for them and the environment.

Taking a proper look at plastic

Plastic packaging has become something of an enemy to sustainability. Consumers often see TV documentaries, news reports and social media campaigns about plastic waste. This has played a role in some companies developing strategies to become plastic-free and led to a number of Governments introducing policies to phase out plastics such as single-use carrier bags in supermarkets.

It is, undoubtedly, important to address plastic waste. At the same time, it’s just as important to separate issues of disposal, littering and waste during the consideration of a packaging material. This can help avoid misconceptions about material choice and also ensure the wider performance benefits of high performance plastic packaging are properly evaluated against alternative options. Such an approach can help food processors and retailers to realise that not all plastics are the same.

The importance of a protective barrier

Some companies may begin their journey to being more sustainable by opting to use less plastic in their food packaging. This can lead to a preference for single layer plastics such as Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) and cellophane. On first inspection, this can seem like a logical step. There’s an assumption a single layer will use less volume of material than multi-layer plastic packaging and that it is more straight-forward to recycle one type of plastic, rather than a composite of different resins.

Consideration of the single layer must move beyond this initial view to determine the barrier performance of the packaging. LDPE can provide a good barrier that’s resistant to water but not so effective in keeping air out, which can result in oxidation. This can cause discolouration, browning of food and degradation of vitamins and nutritional values. The consequence of this could be higher volumes of food wastage, proving expensive for businesses and more detrimental to the environment.

Cellophane works in almost the reverse to LDPE. It’s very good at preventing the movement of oxygen but ineffective at holding water. If a food processor or retailer is packaging fresh meat or fish, they may need to consider the risk of juices leaking. As well as spoiling food quality and presenting a threat to health, leaks can cause further wastage through cross-contamination of other products. 

A multi-layer plastic barrier can overcome the different challenges of a monoplastic layer by offering excellent resistance to oxygen and other potential contaminants such as moisture, humidity and aromas. In addition, the comprehensive multi-layer barrier can be highly resistant to punctures and tears. This combination of performance protects food security, extends shelf-life and minimises waste.

The benefits of a multi-layer plastic barrier can all be realised alongside high levels of recyclability and lower levels of material usage. For example, Sealed Air’s CRYOVAC® brand Darfresh® rollstock packaging uses around 25% less plastic compared to market standard skin packages, is made using up to 30% of post-consumer recycled PET and is specifically designed for recycling2.

Paper in perspective

Another alternative to multi-layer barrier plastic packaging is paper and fibreboard. These options have become a popular choice for some food processors and retailers because the materials are commonly recycled, which increases their appeal amongst consumers. If companies are looking to make this switch, they should consider that these materials offer little or no gas and moisture barrier properties. This reduces their effectiveness in maintaining food quality and safety and reducing food waste.

It’s also important for companies to think about the brand experience of these alternatives. The barrier of paper and fibreboard is less effective in preventing leaking juices, ripped packaging and the ability to contain strong aromas. All of these factors can be off-putting for consumers and negatively impact sales. As well as a drop in revenue, it can also quickly lead to higher levels of waste and mean paper and fibreboard food packaging can have a much larger carbon footprint than first anticipated.

High performance packaging needs to protect both food security and help to properly present the food being sold. Consumers want food that’s safe and looks appetising to eat. To achieve this, paper and board packaging will often be treated with some form of protective coating or lining, which can seem like the ideal solution. It appears to enable companies to satisfy demand for more recyclable materials, whilst addressing barrier challenges. If food processors and retailers go down this route, they must check what this means for recyclability. In many cases, the coating and lining will need to be separated from the paper or card for it to be recycled. This is not always possible or practical for consumers, risking disruption and waste caused by non-compatible materials accidentally entering the recycling stream.

Furthermore, companies should also consider how treated paper and card are perceived by consumers. If people make food purchases believing the packaging to be recyclable, when in fact it is not, this can affect trust in a brand. Shoppers are understandably sceptical of being mis-sold to and will quickly alter their purchasing behaviour.

Taking a circular view

Countries around the world are constantly moving more towards circular economies, where resources are maximised, and waste is minimised. Effectively achieving this requires a lifecycle view of processes and supply chains to properly determine how carbon footprints can be reduced. The same holistic view needs to be taken towards food packaging when considering alternatives and should focus on performance that protects food security and extends shelf-life. This will genuinely help to enhance sustainability.   

For further information go to https://sealedair.co.uk/en-gb/packaging-protects

Written by Kevin Gambrill

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