Choosing the best packaging in a post-pandemic world

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 crisis.

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.

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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 requirements.

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.

GLOPACK packaging

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.

Zsófia Kertész, Campden BRI Hungary
z.kertesz@campdenkht.com
00 3614 331488

Learn more about packaging

Check out our course ‘Packaging technology for non-packaging technologists’

Packaging technology course

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 help.

support@campdenbri.co.uk +44(0)1386 842000

This article was first published in World Bakers.


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