Convenience and quality - flexible packaging
Ingrid Lidbäck, Marketing Manager from extruded flexible packaging and advanced barrier company, Flextrus, Lund, Sweden, describes the progress made in the convenience food packaging market.
Developments within convenience foods’ packaging are coming fast with new products launched at a rapid rate. This increases competition between products in shops, making the type and appearance of the packaging even more important. When considering the choice of packaging, such as easy peel opening, the increasing complexity of the food might need tailor-made solutions from a technical performance standpoint – including gas, moisture and light barriers with sealing to ensure freshness.
Flextrus in Lund, Sweden, has 80 years’ experience in flexible packaging and is focusing on barrier applications and chilled convenience food, such as processed meat and sliced cheese, readymade meals such as fresh pasta, but also fresh salads and produce. The majority of the products are packed in a modified atmosphere (MAP), which can extend shelf-life while maintaining product quality.
Packaging is a hot topic for the consumer, triggered by environmental concerns. At times it is seen as an enemy, rather than an aid, to reducing carbon. However, wasted food is one of the biggest environmental problems. Statistics show that more than 25% of household waste consists of food, spoiled goods can be caused by leaking or inadequate containers, but by providing the necessary barrier and ensuring tight seals, when there is risk of food contaminating the seal area, the pack can save more money than it costs when looking at the wider picture.
With a range of infrastructures in different countries, the main aspect of packaging from an environmental perspective can vary. In Sweden only a small proportion of waste is put in landfill, so packaging materials used in the country are best suited for recycling and reuse, while in the UK the amount of waste going to landfill is high. Therefore the aim here is to reduce packaging and several retailers have set their own weight reduction targets.
Flextrus has focused on sustainable development in all areas – for the company, its customers, the product and overall resource use. Flextrus Clearcote Eco 2 is a biopolymer-based biodegradable material that can be put in the household compost. The material does not compromise performance as some other biopolymer films do, but has high quality seal properties and can be printed with high quality flexo.
No matter how well a product is packed sales will not be maximised unless it is attractive to the consumer. A clear pack with almost complete transparency is often desired if the company wants the product itself to be the main selling point. In this case a mono PET pack is ideal as the material is a chlorine free polymer with excellent clarity and toughness. It is also easy to recycle thanks to its purity with the minimal need for additives and processing aids.
Expanded PET-materials allow a weight reduction of around 25-35%, which lowers both the carbon dioxide foot print and packaging fees in countries where this applies. The material is not only environmentally optimised, but also gives a more attractive look and softer and lighter feel to the pack. For those food producers and packers who have machines set up for running PVC-based materials, AirLite, an expanded PET-material from Flextrus can be used on the same machinery without needing to upgrade. The forming and cutting performance is very similar to PVC, and has the same environmental benefits.
Even if the tray is the dominant part by weight in a pack, minimising the environmental impact from the lidding film should not be forgotten. The most important technical properties are barrier, sealing and strength, which are hard to maintain when down-gauging. The latest development has a minimal thickness of 37ºm and has better properties in sealing and tear strength than many thicker films. This is achieved by using extrusion coating technology where several thin layers of selected polymers are combined in one step.
Although weight reduction is an important aim in meeting environmental demands, the target must be to optimise the use of resources from fossil sources and increase the use of materials from renewable sources. While there is a lot of developmental focus on biopolymers, the applications where it can be commercially viable are limited. While PLA and Clearcote Eco 2 have found a position in the chilled convenience food and mixed fresh salads areas, companies are seeking to increase use of raw materials from renewable resources, and this is where the next generation of thermo-formable material will arise.
PaperLite is based on a paper barrier structure developed with Billerud’s FibreForm, which is then converted into a packaging material by Flextrus. For more demanding applications where high barrier and seal integrity is needed, these properties are added. The material can be thermoformed in existing machine lines without major adjustments. With a specifically developed forming tool the shape and look of paper can be further emphasised and it can be supplied with print for an individual look.