Choosing the best packaging in a post-pandemic world
29 June 2021
Zsófia Kertész, Development Engineer at Campden BRI Hungary
COVID-19 has changed our lives in many ways, including our attitude towards packaging. It seems not long ago that the
BBC’s Blue Planet II and the ‘Attenborough effect’ was causing a tidal wave of change in consumer’s attitudes towards packaging. At the time,
a reported 88% were found to have changed their purchasing behaviour since the programme, according to Waitrose & Partners Food and Drink
Report 2018-19. The same research found customers increasingly buying unpacked fruit and vegetables too. Sales of loose pears, for example,
were growing at 30 times the rate of bagged pears.
But then came the pandemic.
After the packaging-free trend had been establishing itself in many sectors, including the bakery sector, the scales
were then tipped and sales of packaged bakery items soared in 2020. This was fuelled mainly by hygiene concerns but is also thought to be due
to the quicker checkout that packaged goods can allow. While this may be a temporary trend, it does mean that the consumer demand has been
for more, rather than less packaging.
Packaging has long been known as an effective method of protecting food. Since its emergence on our supermarket’s
shelves, the principles of packaging have highlighted safety. Its ability to maintain a product’s integrity while helping prevent any
cross-contamination issues has always been a large selling point, and this explains the sustained uptake seen during the global health
As mentioned, packed products provide a sense of safety and hygiene for the consumers. But if the right technology
is applied, it can also prolong the shelf-life of the product and maintain its quality during storage.
Where are we now and what’s to come?
With the population of many nations seeing their country as overcoming the pandemic, it’s expected that attention
will shift once again to the environmental issues often associated with food and drink packaging. Yet, there’s no doubt that the imprints of
the pandemic will long be etched on consumer’s minds. It’s fair to assume then that we’ll soon find ourselves in an interesting situation –
one where consumers will be considering both the safety and environmental impact of the products they’re purchasing.
What does this mean for manufacturers?
It means that we’re entering a period where choosing the best packaging for a product has never been more important.
Choosing packaging that balances the manufacturer’s needs while addressing consumers’ concerns - regarding ethical, hygiene and environmental
issues – is an emerging priority. Beyond their concerns, a food business’ brand can be strengthened and made to appeal to consumers if it
wraps the product appropriately (reducing excess packaging) and uses environmentally friendly materials.
Deciding which packaging to choose can be a mammoth task – especially for small food companies
Choosing the right packaging
Deciding which packaging to choose can be a mammoth task – especially for small food companies. These businesses
often rely on experience and the advice of their suppliers to select the most appropriate packaging for their product, but this may ultimately
narrow their options. Our experience at Campden BRI has found that many food businesses – big and small – are not aware of the new, available
technologies that can help them choose the most appropriate packaging.
To fill this gap and to enable the implementation of new packaging solutions, a team of researchers and packaging
experts have been developing a decision support system (DSS) as part of a project known as GLOPACK (Granting society with LOw environmental
impact innovative PACKaging). The project aims to use the DSS software tool to provide a food manufacturer/packaging producer with an insight
into the packaging materials available for their specific product. By extension, it will help them to select one which best matches their
How does it work?
The tool will encompass a comprehensive database of packaging materials and their key parameters such as oxygen and
carbon dioxide permeabilities, and consumer preferences - for example, whether it’s transparent, compostable, biodegradable and recyclable.
The DSS will also incorporate qualitative data such as consumer surveys so that packaging materials are ranked based on those most likely to
be accepted by the average consumer. This tool is predicted to be of great use for smaller food businesses that will be able to choose the
perfect packaging for their product.
The project’s aims go far beyond packaging selection. GLOPACK’s broader focus is on investigating food packaging
with no environmental footprint. Its research into new environmentally friendly packaging will help reduce both agricultural waste and the
nine million tonnes of plastic packaging waste that ends up in European landfills each year.
Packaging waste is not the only focus. The project will also investigate packaging that can extend the shelf-life of
food products – ultimately helping reduce food waste. The importance of this is highlighted in figures from the Office for National
Statistics which has found around 24 million slices of bread are thrown out by UK households every day. Further still, across Europe we see
10% of bread and baked goods end up as waste after going stale or not being sold on the day of production. Developing packaging that
increases shelf-life will help combat this waste.
What has the project achieved so far?
Since starting three years ago, the team behind GLOPACK has created thermoformed, biodegradable and home compostable
trays by mixing a biopolymer called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) with leftover straw from wheat harvests and vine shoots. Not only is this a
fantastic example of repurposing excess produce, but the developed material is also completely biodegradable when exposed to water and carbon
dioxide at room temperature. Therefore, we can consider this novel material among the most promising alternatives to oil-based synthetic
polymers. It is materials like these that use waste that will ultimately help the food industry become less dependent on petrochemical products,
setting it up towards a more sustainable future.
Active packaging is a powerful weapon in the project’s arsenal to help extend shelf-life. If you’re unaware of what
this is exactly, active packaging is often defined as a packaging system that maintains and may even improve the health properties,
organoleptic properties and quality of the packaged food product, thereby extending its shelf-life. The packaging that the GLOPACK project
is developing relies largely on antimicrobial compounds and oxygen scavengers to improve and control the storage of the product.
Furthermore, the project developed wireless radio frequency identification (RFID) tags embedded in the packaging’s
label to transmit information to devices like a mobile phone. These tags are battery-free and would be coated in a layer of plant-based
proteins that will emit a weak electrical signal when the gas inside the package changes. The RFID tags will enable the consumers to track
the freshness status of the food and to prevent avoidable food waste and losses due to misunderstanding of the expiry date. The applicability
of these GLOPACK innovations is currently being tested on three oxygen-sensitive products.
GLOPACK aims to bring together industry-leading experts by operating a stakeholder platform. This will allow for
knowledge exchange and discussion relating to food packaging and valorisation issues to allow the experts to develop packaging that suits
food business operator’s needs and expectations. The consortium organises webinars and stakeholder events to update the members on the
progress of the project.
Learn more about packaging
Check out our course ‘Packaging technology for non-packaging technologists’
How can we help you?
If you’d like to find out more about packaging, contact our support team to find out how we can
This article was first published in World Bakers.