Last reviewed 30 April 2013

Food packaging technology has been developing rapidly and now offers recyclable materials that can also extend shelf life and food safety. Dave Howell reports.

The food supply chain has become a sophisticated system, but food waste is still a major problem. In the UK, around 50% of the food that is produced never reaches the consumer. The last Nielsen Global Food Packaging Survey showed that more than two-thirds of consumers would give up a level of packaging if this would benefit the environment. The Consumer Goods Forum clearly states: “Well-designed packaging will meet the requirements of the product while minimising the economic, social and environmental impacts of both the product and its package.” Over the last few years, technology has continued to develop on a number of fronts, none more so than in the packaging industry, which now offers a number of technologies to reduce food waste, extend shelf life and make more packaging highly recyclable.

Sustainable packaging

The UK’s household food waste mountain currently stands at just over seven millions tonnes a year. This is down on previous years, thanks mostly to the work done as part of phase 1 of the Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement in the grocery retail sector that aims to improve resource efficiency. The environmental impact of avoidable household food waste is now around 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), roughly comparable to the emissions of 20% of the cars on UK roads. The savings associated with the reduction in avoidable food waste amount to around 3.6 million tonnes of CO2e a year, and almost a billion litres of water a year.

Phase 2 of the Courtauld Commitment has reported a considerable reduction in supply chain waste: 8.8% less, well ahead of the three-year target of 5%. The packaging target is also on course, at more than three-quarters of the way towards the target 10% carbon reduction. Commenting, Dr Richard Swannell, Director, Design and Waste Prevention, WRAP, said: “These are good results and indicative of the hard work that signatories have been putting in to be more resource efficient, benefiting of the environment and their bottom line. However, there is more to do. The reduction in supply chain waste is particularly important given that it is a new area for Courtauld. In this, its final year, we are continuing to work with the sector to help ensure the Courtauld Phase 2 targets are met in full.”

In addition, WRAP has signed up for the Think.Eat.Save initiative, a campaign launched by the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP) with various partners, including the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) and Messe Düsseldorf. “In the UK we have shown how tackling food waste through engaging with consumers and establishing collective agreement with retailers and brands reduces environmental pressures and aids economic growth,” said Dr Liz Goodwin, CEO of WRAP. “With a rising population, even more pressure is going to be put on resources, and we are excited to be a partner in UNEP and FAO’s Think.Eat.Save campaign, which is a great start to tackling food waste on a global scale.”

Already consumers are showing that they want less packaging with some boxed foodstuffs — such as cereal and the Bag the Box initiative — showing that packaging has to evolve to meet consumer demand.

Some innovative supermarkets including ASDA have been looking at ways in which the amount of packaging can be reduced. In 2012 a number of vending machines were trialled that dispense products like washing up liquid and fabric conditioner into a customer’s own bottle, which they can reuse. This system saves 96% of packaging that would be used if a new bottle were purchased. With consumers throwing away 1.5 million tonnes of plastic each year, any reduction in plastic use is welcome.

Danone Waters of America has redesigned the classic 1.5 litre Evian bottle. The bottle itself uses 11% less plastic than its predecessor and is made of 50% recycled PET. The weight of the new bottle is also 3.4g less than the existing bottle, which reduces its overall carbon footprint by 32%.

The Milk Bag is another example of how innovation and technology can come together to deliver packaging to the shelf that meets a number of key needs. Developed by Sainsbury’s, the “Jugit” reusable jug combined with the milk bags reduced milk packaging by 75%. Milk Bags could save up to 1.4 million kg of packaging every year. Dairy Crest has invested more than £2.2 million in a new processing plant at its site in Gloucestershire to produce the Milk Bags.

Richard McCole, Director, Strategy at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP commented: “Sustainable packaging is becoming a fact of life and will in time be seen as just another requirement for doing business alongside pricing, product performance and service.”

Food tech

The development of new technologies to enhance the shelf life of a range of foodstuffs continues apace. Coupled with this is the drive for higher levels of recycling, which consumers now demand. Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) technology, oxygen absorbers, bioplastics and freshness indicators are all now routinely used with a diverse range of foodstuffs.

To reduce food waste, a number of innovations have taken place. Most of the technology that has been applied to food has been in an effort to extend shelf life and give indicators regarding the freshness of the food in question. A number of technologies have been developed in the labelling sector: these include the recent UWI Label, which indicates whether the food is safe to eat after the packaging has been opened.

Labelling solutions from companies including ShockWatch, PakSense Labels, FreshPoint and Ciba (see have developed the OnVu TTI (time-temperature indicator) label. The label is ideal for any kind of chilled product as it indicates the accumulated time-temperature history of a product, showing any exposure to excessive temperature (and for how long) and thus indicating the freshness of foods and beverages.

Intelligent packaging also now offers a number of platforms that include It’s Fresh! ethylene remover, which has been highly successful for Tesco. The new strip is coated with a naturally occurring substance of clay and other materials that absorbs ethylene — the hormone that causes fruit to ripen. Tesco claims the new strip to be 100 times more effective than previous absorbers. Tesco Ambient Salad and Avocado Technical Manager Steve Deeble said: “This is a major breakthrough in the fight to combat food waste and could save the fresh produce industry tens of millions of pounds each year.”

Simon Lee, director of It’s Fresh! Ltd added that several other produce lines are currently under trials with leading retailers. "It has been estimated that up to 25% of food is thrown away within the supply chain from grower to retailer to in-home. Vegetables and then fruit are the main contenders," he revealed.

Ethylene absorbers have also been built into the corrugated board that is often used to display fresh fruit. Systems from SCA Packaging and an antimicrobial film developed as part of the EU's 7th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development have also appeared on the market. And a new initiative dubbed PlantPack will investigate how seaweed could be used as a barrier film instead of the current petroleum-based material.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow have developed a process that temporarily turns the oxygen inside a sealed pack into ozone, which is a highly effective germicide. Commenting on the prototype, Anacail CEO Executive Officer Dr Ian Muirhead said: “We’re very excited about the applications of our product. It’s safe and easy to use, doesn’t require any change in current packaging of food products to be effective and it doesn’t require any chemical additives — the sterilisation effect comes directly from oxygen already in the package, which is treated by our plasma head. Although ozone can be harmful to humans, it has a very limited lifespan before it returns to oxygen and it doesn’t leave behind any dangerous residues, so it’s perfectly safe to use in food decontamination. It’s a very effective way to destroy or inhibit the growth of bacteria and viruses.”

Materials innovation

In its last report, MarketsandMarkets stated: “The increasing demand for fresh and quality packaged food, consumer convenience and manufacturers’ concern for longer shelf life of the food products is driving the market for global active and smart packaging technology for the food and beverage market. The global market for active and smart packaging technology in food and beverages is expected to grow to $23.4 million in 2015.”

Any discussion of food technology must also consider nanomaterials. Scientists in Israel have already developed what they call “killer paper” that can be used with a wide range of packaging to combat bacteria such as E.coli. FreshCase packaging also has a film that is typically used with food presented in trays. The film reacts with enzymes in meat to enhance its red colour but also extends the shelf life of these products from around 2 or 3 days to 30 days.

Neil Farmer of Neil Farmer Associates commented: “Consumers want packaging that keeps products in good condition. They want packaging that keeps products clean and ready to be eaten. They want longer shelf life, product security and, in the current downturn, value for money. The speed of take-up of packaging innovation will depend on the pace of the economic recovery. Innovations in packaging for extending the shelf life will be a key driver over the next five years for manufacturers. Enhanced technical performance qualities of materials will fuel market growth.”

There is of course a cost associated with all of these technologies. Who within the food supply chain will pay for these innovations is a moot point as the food industry as a whole has to embrace these technologies to reduce the waste food mountain and deliver packaging that is highly recyclable. Research from also reveals that consumers would be prepared to pay more for active and intelligent packaging if this enhanced food safety and reduced waste. From an environmental perspective, the range of food packaging technologies we now have offers food developers all the tools they need to create innovative packaging that offers the performance and safety that are needed, with high levels of sustainability.