Man Wearing Fitness Clothing Scanning QR Code On Food Packaging
Man Wearing Fitness Clothing Scanning QR Code On Food Packaging To Find Nutritional Information

By Felicity Kelly, Head of Sustainability at Bunzl Australia & New Zealand

For the longest time, food packaging has been treated as simply a necessary evil, nothing more than a means to contain and transport food products. But today, food packaging can be so much more. Evolutions in the sustainable food packaging space mean that it can now be not just compostable, but even edible. Smart packaging solutions can also monitor and even communicate to us exactly how long the food will stay fresh based on factors such as temperature and humidity. 

Recyclable packaging materials are also in high demand as consumers expect more environmentally aware packaging and products from the businesses that they shop at. These materials are typically made from starches, cellulose, or plant fibers and naturally break down over time — they can also be composted rather than added to landfill. This not only reduces waste overall but can also enrich the soil, creating a closed-loop sustainability system. 

Edible packaging takes sustainability to an entirely new level, where meals can be packaged in a tasty wrapper that adds to the dining experience. Once the meal is finished, there is no waste, as the packaging forms part of the meal. Incorporating advanced technology into packaging creates smart packaging that can monitor the environment and measure important factors such as temperature and humidity and — in some cases — the presence of harmful bacteria, which can spoil food.

Embracing sustainability in the food manufacturing industry

What is sustainability in food manufacturing and why is it important in the food industry? Sustainability in food manufacturing means using resources, methods, and processes that will help to minimize any negative impact on the environment. Sustainable food manufacturing can mitigate environmental damage by reducing waste in landfills, overall pollution, and a business’s carbon footprint. This type of food production is also important to win and retain customers. Customers today are aware of the environmental impact of their buying choices, so if you want to prosper in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry, you need to address the sustainability question in a way that satisfies modern consumers.

Cutting-edge technologies for recyclable food packaging

The future of food packaging has several exciting trends on the horizon. For example, smart packaging will soon be able to communicate with your smartphone and provide real-time information about the freshness of the food and the expiration date based on the information monitored. Other breakthrough solutions include:

Breaking barriers: recyclable materials for sustainable packaging

What does recyclable food packaging mean and how is this different from traditional food packaging in terms of the material’s environmental impact? Traditional food packaging involves the use of plastics and other single-use materials which end up in landfill sites and take centuries to decompose — the very opposite of sustainable. 

Around 45% of the waste discarded in landfill sites in the United States comes from foods and the packaging or containers used to supply food. Whereas, recyclable food packaging designed for sustainability will use renewable materials, such as plant-based plastics and renewable paperboard, as well as compostable materials like paper. Recyclable packaging materials now being used for food packaging include bioplastics, paper, cardboard, edible packaging, mushroom packaging, cellulose-based materials, pulp trays, and bagasse. These materials are made from renewable plant resources such as sugar cane, cornstarch, agricultural waste, seaweed, plant fibers, and wood pulp. However, using sustainable materials for food packaging alone is no guarantee of sustainability. In order to be fully sustainable, these materials need to be recycled properly.

The future is here: smart packaging solutions 

Smart packaging is the term used for the integration of several technologies into packaging materials that provide additional functionality. This usually involves adding sensors or indicators into the packaging to allow them to monitor the condition of the packaged item and the environment. For example, sensors could be used to monitor the moisture content in a food product while also monitoring the room temperature. This information can be used to accurately determine the shelf life of food products and greatly reduce the likelihood of food spoiling and causing illness. There are several benefits, including:

  • Enhanced product safety: Smart packaging can monitor and communicate information about the food product and the environmental conditions. This information can be used to ensure food products are stored in optimal conditions, greatly reducing the risk of spoilage or contamination.
  • Extended shelf life: The shelf life of food products can be extended by monitoring factors such as humidity, temperature, oxygen levels, and moisture content. This information can be used to extend the shelf life of products and reduce wastage.
  • Tracking: Technologies such as RFID or QR codes can be used to provide real-time tracking of food products to identify any potential issues in the supply chain and to make recalls much more efficient.
  • Consumer engagement: Interactive features such as enhanced product information, personalized messages, or even augmented reality can enhance customer engagement and be an effective ambassador to build brand loyalty.

Eating your packaging: exploring the world of edible packaging

Edible packaging refers to materials used to package food that is also safe for consumption. These materials tend to be made from natural edible ingredients, such as seaweed, plant-based fibers, or edible packaging films made from food starch. There are a variety of benefits derived from edible packaging for the food industry, the environment, and consumers. 

First, the reduction of single-use plastic waste in landfills when a business transitions to using edible packaging can seriously reduce the amount of waste that ends up in our environment. In addition, edible packaging is convenient and is easier for consumers on the go, as it eliminates the need for utensils or even unwrapping or unpackaging — the ultimate convenience.

Challenges and opportunities on the path to sustainable packaging

The introduction of recyclable packaging materials, smart packaging sensors, sustainable packaging designs, and edible packaging and utensils, are revolutionizing the world of food packaging today. These technologies are redefining sustainability in the food industry and are paving the way toward a more responsible future. The food industry has already taken the first steps in embracing this visionary future, although there are of course some challenges to overcome. These challenges include the ready availability of sustainable packaging materials, customer perception, and of course increased initial costs. However, by embracing these innovations, companies can experience higher customer satisfaction and, in the long term, can not only recoup their initial investment but improve their profitability.

Felicity Kelly is the Head of Sustainability at Bunzl Australia & New Zealand. She assists organizations in enhancing their sustainability performance and reputation, as well as managing their entire value chain through stakeholder engagement, communication, risk management, problem-solving, strategy development, and execution.

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