Packaging and food waste reduction strategies

14 April 2020

Packaging has many roles to play. It must securely contain and hold a variety of products of different shapes, sizes and content, enabling them to be transported from the manufacturer or if is a freshly picked fruit or vegetable item, perhaps from the very field or orchard from where it is harvested or gathered; often over long distances to a retailer where the product is sold.

Packaging has many roles to play. It must securely contain and hold a variety of products of different shapes, sizes and content, enabling them to be transported from the manufacturer or if is a freshly picked fruit or vegetable item, perhaps from the very field or orchard from where it is harvested or gathered; often over long distances to a retailer where the product is sold.  Once the purchaser has made his or her choice the pack must allow for ease of carry-away and safe storage at home.

Packaging of course must do so much more: for brand owners, marketers and retailers alike it’s the silent sales person; graphics, logo, colour and informational content encapsulate the essence of the brand and aid the consumer in the decision-making process. Packaging or rather its component parts can function as a spoilage decay mechanism: barriers engineered in with the structure; multi-web materials and laminates help to extend shelf life and maintain food process integrity right up to and including recommended on-pack printed use by date.

We may tend to think in terms of marketing and packaging products for the fast consumer goods markets of the United States, the UK and Europe, etc., but the marketing and the way in which products are packed can vary for many reasons.  Time, distance and other circumstances as well as the type of product to be packaged can influence the effectiveness of many packaging strategies. Cost is also an important factor. Products, produced and packed in less prosperous regions of the world and especially items such as fruit, vegetables or other produce may find that they require packaging solutions that take into account environmental cultural, logistical and uniqueness of product.

The idea of going organic or growing products naturally is nothing new, until the introduction of modern industrially formulated chemical fertilisers and pesticides farming methods relied on using locally available resources such as farmyard manure, etc. In many parts of the world this method of growing crops is still practised, often for reasons of cost. Although modern methods of farming are not without its critics, it has to be said that the ability to produce high crop yields have for the time being at least, largely eliminated food shortages, but the future of dosing the earth with illiberal amounts of chemicals and of factory farming raises concerns.

Organic farming aims to strengthen biological processes without recourse to synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Organically grown products such as nuts, vegetables, fruit and other items are believed to have a positive effect on health. Organic food is more available now than at any time in the supermarkets of affluent countries, although the percentage of sales when compared with mainstream produce is still low. The reason for this may be that organically grown and packaged food tends to be more expensive.

Many of the naturally grown products like preserves, flowers, juices, fruit and vegetables have a relatively short shelf life and the way products are packed must be considered accordingly. This assumes even greater importance if one considers products produced in developing countries. Packaged items may be palletised and shipped or air freighted and transported long distance.

Developing countries have literally centuries long experience in exporting mainstay commodities. Many of these goods, tea, coffee, rice and fruit have been exported in bulk and were then re-packed in more marketable consumer units on arrival in the industrialised countries by the importers/buyers prior to delivery to wholesalers and then onto the supermarkets.  High levels of waste occurred at each stage.

For some time, the producers of these staple and increasingly exotic products as well as economic planners in these countries recognised that it was necessary to upgrade export earnings. They have tackled this in a number of ways depending on circumstances; through partnerships with packaging groups; by adding value, by increasing local processing or raw materials and in some instances by packaging at source – entering into direct contact with overseas agencies/retailers and consumers, using own brand names and building brand equity through package design, colour and pack originality.

But large losses from farm to plate still remain a concern for producers, investors, retailers and others in the supply chain. Food loss is attributed to a variety of sources that include, poor handling, inappropriate packaging selection, distribution, storage and consumer behaviour. Temperature and temperature extremes, moisture, humidity, light and gases can affect product quality and is a major cause of product throwaway; so too in countries with poor infrastructure, unreliable power sources and transportation delay can contribute to waste.

Suppliers, food/beverage producers, quality regulators and in some instances investment and brokers are working with technology providers to provide sustainable and relevant packaging solutions to help maintain the integrity of the product and packaging over a given time. New generation pilot print, coat and laminate systems that enable products and formulae to be tested and trialled under real world operating conditions speeds product development and can play a part in determining commercial and product feasibility.  Systems such as the VCML Lab/Pilot coater are useful for product development; quality control, testing of different materials, inks/substrates and for small-scale production of specialised products. The VCML Lab/Pilot coater prints, coats and laminates all types of flexible substrates such as papers, films and metallic foils and on a reel-to-reel basis.

Touch screen controlled and with a web width of up to 300mm, the VCML Lab/Pilot coater’s processing capabilities include: flexo, offset gravure, direct/indirect gravure, knife over roll, reverse roll coating, slot die, meter bar coating and much more.

Determining printability, convertibility of packaging material is subject to discussion but in instances where products are produced at source using organic methods it is important to establish the nature of the food; its physical form; product characteristics: perishability (ripeness/maturity), pH, fat content (risk of rancidity), hygroscopic nature, etc. 

In most cases the pack must be stable enough to absorb vibration and must be firm enough to resist a reasonable amount of pressure during stacking; food especially fruit has to be packed in such a way that items are not rubbing against one another. Moulded paper which encapsulates fruit such as apples, etc, used in conjunction with corrugated, folding box or case board constructs offer a high degree of protection and reduce food loss caused by bruised fruit and damaged skin which not only does not look attractive but opens the way for microbial infection and decay.

Some foods pose few problems with regard to packaging and distribution, but even foods such as the shelf stable dried or dehydrated foods require a degree of protection and barrier resistance. Products such as tea, coffee, rice and pulses must be protected in order that low moisture content is maintained. Poorly packed flour for instance if not protectively packed tends over time to absorb moisture. Items must be labelled with a prominent use by date so that consumers are made fully aware of storage requirements.  

Active, intelligent, flexible pouches, pillow, stand alone, gusseted; retortable, folding carton, thermoformed, clamshell and multi-web substrates and laminate filmic, foil and other combo structures are available that guard against the ingress or if desired the egress of gases, light, moisture vapour and much more besides. With sustainability and concern for the environment at the forefront of most peoples mind eco-friendly materials made from Bagasse (the waste material produced once sugar cane is harvested), Areca Palm leaf, the bio-plastics, the plastics made from corn starch provide even more in the way of producing a pack that is right for the product.  Having the right materials, suitable technology and a fast and efficient distribution system should speed field to plate and assist governments and food agencies in food waste reduction strategies.

But there is one more thing to consider. The packaging technologist has provided the solution, the product is suitably packed, the only thing is that once its been shipped and the product is on the shelf it has to be noticed, it has to be picked up off the shelf and purchased quickly, especially if the item has a short shelf life.

For Island communities, perhaps for some regions in South America or Africa packaging design and presentation may not be a huge concern. Products produced and sold in the home market may be well known, the product may have few competitors and the need for promotional package presentation is less pressing. When goods enter onto world markets the promotional aspect of packaging becomes critical.   Printability, the ability to perhaps only print in two or three colours, but print them well goes a long way. Often the sale of goods from poorer regions receive a sympathetic reception and build strong sales through simple designs, well executed colour and the use of national logos and a made from organic or natural and sustainable resource labels/stickers or on pack message.

Matching colour so that it is consistent from run to run is still one of the most challenging aspects of printing. Assessing how inks and substrates react on different packaging materials can also be time consuming and expensive on press.  Colour communication or proofing systems such as the FlexiProof 100 have been supplied to flexo users both in developed markets and in regions with less experience of flexo printing. Other variants of the FlexiProof such as the FlexiProof UV and FlexiProof LED UV are also available. 

In developing regions, the FlexiProof has been supplied to companies in El Salvador, Pakistan, the Philippines and Guatemala, etc.  A scaled down but component critically exact version of a production press the FlexiProof enables users to conduct trials of unfamiliar materials prior to commercial production, saving on material waste and enabling colour and or substrate related issues to be resolved speedily and off press. Printability issues such has gloss, durability, chemical resistance, scuff resistance can be determined enabling the user to turn out a printed product fit to be noticed in world markets.

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