From carrying food in from the field, to shipping processed products, to assembling a supermarket display, packaging matters. So, as a follow-up to our exploration of emerging trends in food packaging, we’re taking a look at several innovative technologies that could change the future of packaging.
The search for sustainability
More than half of consumers say that environmental sustainability is at least somewhat important to their purchasing decisions, and 41% of those shoppers look for recyclable packaging. To benefit the environment and ultimately please consumers with sustainability practices, food brands, startups, and researchers are discovering new ways to package products with recyclable, reusable, or biodegradable materials.
Among food companies, Nestle is one of the frontrunners in this effort. The company made a commitment to converting all of its products to recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025, and it recently released its YES! bars in recyclable paper packaging. For this, Nestle used a high-speed flow wrap technology, successfully preserving the shelf life without plastic films or laminates.
Here are a few other emerging solutions protecting the planet from packaging.
Recycling and replacing plastic
Keeping plastic out of landfills and oceans remains one of the primary goals in the sustainability movement. And, according to researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, one way to tackle this is to make plastic endlessly recyclable. They developed a polymer called polydiketoenamine (PDK), which “can be manufactured, used, recycled, and re-used — without losing its properties or value.” In food packaging, PDK could replace non-recyclable plastics, as well as recyclable plastics that have been modified to the point where they are no longer recyclable.
Other technologies are substituting plastic with biodegradable or edible materials:
- Lactips developed packaging made from the milk protein casein, which is printable, edible, and biodegradable (breaks down within 18 days), and maintains product freshness and shelf life.
- Using extracted chitin from discarded seafood components, Cauntec created a flexible, antimicrobial, and biodegradable film to wrap food products.
- Laser Food is replacing plastic, oil-based labels by using laser technology to harmlessly depigment fruit and vegetable skins.
- A design student at Brunel University London used a base of orange peels to create a biodegradable and environmentally-friendly material that’s strong enough to use in packaging crates.
- Startup company Decomer is developing water-soluble packaging for condiments, starting with honey packets that dissolve in hot beverages.
Aside from plastic, there are many other materials often found in packaging that have a negative impact on the environment. For example, that metal film inside a bag of chips or a candy wrapper, which currently must be torn off in order to recycle the outer layer of plastic. Since that’s quite a tedious process, consumers find it easier to drop the whole package into the trash.
Researchers from the University of Oxford want to change that. Using an economical process, they were able to create a transparent film that blocks gases and water vapors. The process starts with a nanosheet made from non-toxic synthetic clays, which they then stabilize with amino acids. Though researchers are still testing the technology, it may soon be ready to replace the metal film and create a fully recyclable option for snack packaging.
But sometimes it’s the packaging involved in transporting products that presents a challenge for recycling. The standard for keeping produce items chilled during transit is a waxed carton filled with ice. Waxed cartons aren’t recyclable, and melting ice creates a messy situation and a welcoming environment for pathogens.
That’s why StePac developed a dry packaging technology called Xtend Iceless. This allows produce to be field-packed and sealed using forced air or vacuum cooling, keeping products fresh for the journey. The lack of ice leaves more room for produce in each package, and the lack of waxed cartons minimizes environmental impact.
Verifying food safety and quality
In the U.S., we discard an estimated 30 to 40% of our food supply. Food loss occurs at all stages of the supply chain for a multitude of reasons, including pests, mold, and bacterial contamination. It also happens on the consumer level due to issues like spoilage, excess product, and damage.
But advancements in packaging are preventing food waste by making it easier for both consumers and processors to check the freshness of food and ensure its safety.
Detecting spoiled food
A startup out of the U.K. called Mimica recently designed a package label containing a bioresponsive gel that liquefies according to the rate that a particular food goes bad. Once the food is no longer safe to eat, consumers will be able to feel bumps under the right side of the label. This technology can be tailored for any food product, and the company says the label’s reaction is never off by more than a few hours. Mimica hopes to cut food waste in half with this invention.
A few other developments in food spoilage detection are in the works:
- It’s easy to detect when milk has gone bad — spoiled milk has a distinctive smell caused by bacteria growth. But Washington State University scientists are working on a method that indicates milk spoilage without you having to open the package. They created a chemically-coated sensor that changes color in response to gas buildup and bacteria growth. They envision using this technology on milk caps and believe it may be more reliable than expiration dates.
- Speaking of improving upon expiration dates, researchers at Imperial College London developed “paper-based electrical gas sensors” to recognize spoilage gases in meat and fish products. These sensors are inexpensive to produce, since they’re created by printing carbon electrodes onto cellulose paper. Scanning these sensors with a mobile device lets consumers know whether the product is safe for consumption.
These developments in packaging show great potential for food processors, whether it’s about keeping consumers safe from spoiled food, reducing food waste, or following through on sustainability promises. And as food companies continue to respond to consumer demands and food safety concerns, we should see more packaging solutions like these in the near future.