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Food packaging vs. food waste

Food packaging manufacturers present intelligent solutions to the global issue of food waste

As the world’s population anticipates growth to 9 billion people by 2050, as estimated in a UN DESA report, and the Food Aid Foundation records that some 795 million people currently go hungry, pressure placed on food manufacturers to increase production is soaring through the roof. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations underscores, however, that 1.3 billion tonnes of food are either lost or wasted annually, and, just in April 2018, The Guardian shocked readers with the appalling revelation that Americans waste 150,000 tonnes of food every single day. Not only does the modern-day

consumerist and throwaway attitude demonstrate a disturbing oblivion to critical cases of starvation worldwide, but the environmental impact is also catastrophic, as rotting food saturates landfills, producing methane which in turn fuels global warming. Whilst food packaging is increasingly shunned into the shadow of notoriety, it is evident that a trade-off is necessary, as development in packaging design is being recognised more and more as the way forward in the fight to reduce food waste.

Alterations to traditional packaging should be first on manufacturers’ lists of priorities, as research indicates that there remain markedly simple steps to be made. Disparities between date labelling terminology trigger confusion and the discarding of food whilst still edible, and environmentalists consequently call for standardisation, underlining the indisputable benefits of packaging labels that are straightforward to read. Packaging manufacturers should adopt an equally consistent approach to storage advice printed on packs, as detailed instructions will help to improve storage practices within the home and minimise the amount of food thrown away. Positive changes can also be made to the food packaging design itself, as resealable packs ensure freshness for a longer period of time, whilst smaller packs are an optimised solution for smaller households and packs sub-divided into portion sizes present an ideal purchase for environmentally-conscious individuals.

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Active packaging

Research into active packaging proves to be the next step, as developers investigate innovative ways to adjust the organoleptic characteristics of food, extend its shelf-life, and resultantly minimise waste.

Moisture absorbers

Moisture absorbers are used perhaps most frequently, as silica gel and calcium oxide desiccants act as the perfect permeable constituents in dried food packs, whilst super-absorbent polyethylene films carefully control levels of melted ice in packs holding fish and poultry, inhibiting the growth of microorganisms. The incorporation of antioxidants into food packaging has been received equally well, minimising the risk of premature food spoilage in addition to weakening unpleasant odours produced whilst the food is still actually edible.

Iron powder

Iron powder oxygen scavengers are utilised to remove residual oxygen from the headspace of food packaging, whilst oxygen indicator tablets offer a more visual signal to consumers that their food is deteriorating. Modified Atmosphere Packaging involves the addition of gases to the pack before it is sealed by vacuum packaging, reducing rates of respiration and, in turn, the re-production of undesired microorganisms.

Edible coatings

Edible coatings which form a barrier are an alternative solution for fruit and vegetables, whereas treatment with high temperatures in aseptic packaging functions to kill bacteria and increase the shelf life of food to 6 months without preservatives.

Intelligent packaging is too becoming increasingly advanced, informing not only the manufacturer, but also the consumer, of the state of the food contained within the pack. Radio Frequency Identification uses microchips enclosed within the packaging to store data regarding the use-by date of comestibles, whilst Time-Temperature Indicators are crucial signifiers for whether a product has been cooled below or heated above a critical temperature. Retailers and consumers are thus warned about the potential survival of micro-organisms on the surface of the food, and conclusions can be made about whether or not the product remains safe to eat.

Impressively futuristic as a solution, nanotechnology is increasingly being explored as a tool for active food packaging by developers, with the reduction of food waste at the forefront of their minds. Launched in January 2017, NanoPack is a programme backed by EU funding, working towards the mass-scale production of antimicrobial food packaging film for meat, dairy, and bakery foodstuffs. Releasing sanitising essential oils into the packaging headspace, NanoPack utilises halloysite nanotubes in order to stymie microbial growth and consequently extend the shelf-life of comestibles and make dramatic cuts to food waste.

Since its commencement, NanoPack has been launched into the spotlight, receiving worldwide attention following recognition and achievement at the 2018 Packaging Europe Sustainability Awards. NanoPack development has, so far, been restricted to the laboratory, but advancements in safety and technology mean that expansion into the mass-market is only just around the corner.

nano pack logo

Disruption to the cold chain and fluctuations in temperature remain prime culprits for the premature spoiling of food, triggering of illness, and resultant food waste. BASF is just one company striving to serve up a satisfying solution, and its OnVu™ packaging proposal has enjoyed a resounding positive reception. The apple-shaped label functions as a visual time-temperature indicator, and the colour at its centre fades at a rate proportionate to temperature change. Comparison to the reference colour allows for easy discerning between fresh and spoiled foodstuffs, raising awareness of the cooling chain among consumers. Perfect for perishable products such as meat and fish, the time-temperature indicator demonstrated its worth in a pilot project conducted in the Mexican Superama chain, and major retailers across Europe have already adopted the OnVu™ technology into their supermarkets.

onvu logo onvu table indicator

Packaging solutions to food waste come not without their challenges, however, and the concern of consumer contact is undoubtedly of paramount importance. Regulation (EC) 1935/2004 approaches the matter with stringency, imposing strict regulations on the introduction of constituents to food, and ensuring the prevention of quantities that pose a danger to human health. Articles 4(d) and 11 of Commission Regulation (EC) No 450/2009 proceed even further, responding to the risk of consumption with the specification that all active and intelligent components should be clearly marked as non-edible.

Danger of consumption is not the only challenge to counter, however, as active and intelligent packaging additionally encounters issues with regards to accuracy. Not only do Radio Frequency Identification tags come with a price tag, but applications involving higher amounts of water or metal prove to be detrimental to precision, whilst thermal sensors can be similarly temperamental, as exposure to UV light, solvents, and higher temperatures has been found to jeopardise functionality.

Evidence indicates that there are clearly still challenges to overcome, yet developers of active and intelligent packaging betray no hesitancy, and their incessant efforts to engineer creative solutions to the exponential problem of food waste suggests that there are exciting times ahead.

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  • Modified 21 Mar 2019
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