Better blend - low-carbon-footprint food packaging
Trefor Owen, Environmental Manager at rigid plastic packaging manufacturer, Sharp Interpack, outlines developments in materials and design for food packs with lower carbon footprints.
With the UK economy remaining in a fragile state, the packaging industry will continue to face price and cost pressures. In terms of product development, companies are finding new and creative ways of meeting customer needs.
In soft fruit, meat and poultry products, retailers and customers are seeking a longer shelf life through punnet designs such as SPSAir and Modified Atmosphere Packaging. New design technologies in punnets, such as sympathetic rib designs, optimise product visibility, maximise strength and ensure that the contents are protected during transit. A-B nesting has maximised delivery of packaging to customers – more punnets/trays per pallet and therefore more packaging per truck load, decreasing the number of truck journeys. Alongside this, shelf-ready promotional packaging for meat and poultry has reduced handling time and cost in store.
Therefore, the shelf life of products is improved, providing benefit to retailers through waste reduction, as well as increasing choice and quality for customers together with environmental benefits, such as decreasing the numbers of lorries used for delivery, due to increased capacity of crates.
The introduction of new packaging technologies is not always welcomed, and can face resistance from some customers due to concerns over the safety or hygiene of food packaged in recycled plastic that has been through the waste process.
In general, customers are not aware of the stringent checks and controls that take place with these materials. The use of post-consumer recyclate has now become normal, with customers treating it as just another plastic material.
The selection of materials used to produce plastic packaging evolves in response to changing customer demand. Focus over recent years has been on the need to reduce the weight of food packaging, meaning less waste and fewer materials required for production. In theory, it also means reduced cost.
Combining plastics with other materials for packaging has also produced improvements. Sharp Interpack has launched the c-LOW material across mushroom punnets. This is part of the drive to see recycled content material accepted across a broad range of market sectors. The c-LOW technology reduces virgin petrochemical content, making it one of the lowest carbon footprint punnets on the market, 23% lower than conventional PP. It combines naturally resourced mineral filler blended with UK post-consumer waste.
Pleasing to the eye
In terms of aesthetics, the importance of packaging in the overall marketing of food products will remain. Instead, the change will come with food increasingly taking the focus. Consumers want a ‘360 degree view’ of the product. This is driven by a desire to buy food that looks fresh and attractive, and it is this demand that drives the design of packaging, particularly for fresh produce.
Brands also require clear value-added differentiation. This will lead to increasingly lightweight packaging that also offers eye catching style and design.
The packaging industry has responded to changing demands in design and delivery, and must remain proactive in calls to review manufacturing processes. Production of packaging is highly energy intensive and contributes to carbon emissions. As a result, there is a responsibility to review packaging and ensure any negative impact arising from its production or disposal is minimised. For example, replacing flat bed processes with rotary thermoforming gives energy reductions of as much as 30%.
Recycled materials will continue to grow in importance as consumers pick up on the notion of cradle-to-cradle packaging. The materials of choice are rPET and PP, but work has been done on a number of new materials including c-LOW that offers environmental advantages, through its recyclability and lower carbon emissions.
In addition to sustainability, it is also important for packaging to offer ease of use for retailers and customers. Shelf ready packaging has been developed that allows retailers to lift the entire unit and place on a shelf without the need for additional merchandising modifications. Market displays, such as those for soft fruit, are now able to use punnets presented in the crates in which they were delivered, for use directly on shelves in store.
The future of packaging lies with increasing shelf life through natural methods, such as SPS Air with its sloping vents. This design means that the punnets are always free for ventilation even when they are stacked. The design offers significant airflow improvements permitting the soft fruit to breathe more easily, aiding fruit conservation and reducing food wastage.
Sharp Interpack, Covert Road, Aylesham, Kent, CT3 3EF. Tel: 01304 840 581. Website: http://en.sharpinterpack.com