Raise the barrier

26 April 2013

The Co-operative Group’s Iain Ferguson tells Packaging & Converting Intelligence how barrier packaging can prolong shelf-life to stem the growing burden of food waste, and considers its implications for the consumer in terms of health and safety, and for the packaging business in terms of brand integrity.

Like white knights of the packaging realm, innovative barrier materials have come riding in to save us from overwhelming the planet with mountains of waste food. Promising to cut 'the beast' down to size, shiny-new, thin-gauge barrier films became the packaging smash hit of 2012, winning over retailers and shoppers who care about their food bills and the environment. A constant nudge for the packaging industry to 'do more with less' comes from rising food and energy prices, pressure to reduce carbon and water footprints, and health and safety concerns. At the same time, continuing investment in waste recovery and recycling infrastructure has assisted a rapidly expanding market in lighter-weight barrier materials designed for ambient and chilled food chains.

The link between product shelf-life, packaging technology and environmental issues is highlighted by a UK food chain that prides itself on its strong, sustainable-business ethos.

"Finding ways to reduce food waste levels is of the utmost importance to us," says The Co-operative Group's environment manager Iain Ferguson. In a packaging cost-benefit analysis, the food-loss savings are the prime factor, rather than packaging, as the cost of the disposal of packaging "is likely to be significantly less than the value of the food".

Extending shelf-life

"The Co-operative's aim is to look at all of the impacts of packaging, including - arguably the most important - how well it protects the product inside," says Ferguson. "To this end, we are exploring several avenues to extend shelf-life of perishable goods. We have reduced waste on steaks by using skinpacks, which extend the shelf-life and improve product quality. Our overall packaging target, which is part of our ground-breaking Ethical Plan, is aligned with Courtauld Commitment 2, that is, to reduce the carbon impact of packaging by 10% by 2013. However, having achieved this two years ahead of target, we are looking to build on this success."

The Co-operative extends the scope of its waste-saving ambitions into homes by educating customers through on-pack advice. "We are constantly looking for the best ways to provide value for our customers in a responsible way," says Ferguson.

But packaging changes have financial impacts, so information is captured by running live trials and gathering empirical data: "We take into account the value of the [food] waste," he adds. "We also try to assess the environmental impact of the change."

The potential to cut levels of food waste and lighten the environmental burden attracted plenty of media interest in novel packaging films on both sides of the Atlantic throughout 2012. In the US, Dole's microperforated plastic bags for bananas are said to extend shelf-life by up to a week and present the opportunity to significantly reduce spoilage at household level. Earlier this year, British developers introduced films that could be proved to add several days to the shelf-life of a variety of fresh produce. Any such claims cannot be made without exhaustive testing, as the financial and reputational cost of falling short of consumer expectations is high. But the rewards from successful applications will be shared in years to come across the retail supply chain, and by consumers and the environment.

Nano and other technologies

"The UN's FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] recently highlighted the growing and alarming levels of food waste as a main global concern," says Richard Coles, a consultant, lecturer and trainer in packaging and sustainability with links to the Natural Resources Institute (NRI), based at the University of Greenwich, and The Open University, both in the UK. "Resource scarcity, combined with fast-growing rates of consumption in a rapidly urbanising world, requires that product wastage is addressed through investment in innovations such as barrier packaging."

The industry expert, who co-edited the handbook Food and Beverage Packaging Technology, adds: "Innovative barrier packaging should provide sufficient product protection for the intended or desired shelf-life to reduce product wastage not only in the supply chain but also by the end-user, using, for example, modified atmosphere packaging (MAP). This often involves lightweight packaging while maintaining or perhaps even improving barrier properties using innovative materials such as nanomaterials to enhance gas and water-vapour barrier properties of flexible and rigid plastics for preserved produce, beverages, wine and other foods."

"Resource scarcity and fast-growing rates of consumption require that wastage is addressed through innovations such as barrier packaging."

Nanotechnology has come to the aid of the snacks and cereals sector. American company NanoPack says that nanocomposites, when applied as a thin coating to PET film, enable pack transparency and the use of metal detectors on food production lines. NanoSeal BXT is in commercial production and is claimed to protect flavour and aroma, shield the inks and adhesives in laminations and allow variation of coating thickness to meet specific barrier needs. The weight and volume of packaging waste are reduced and the use of water-based adhesives and inks offer additional ecological benefits, according to NanoPack.

Reputations can stay strong or fall as a result of packaging choices, explains Coles: "Barrier packaging needs to protect brand integrity and consumers by ensuring product health and safety through provision of a functional barrier against possible migration of chemical substances, including printing inks, to the contained product. This protective role is becoming even more important with ongoing public/government concern over health and safety issues, increasing legislative requirements and the continued growth in international trade."

But Coles also thinks that "it is inappropriate to exploit commercial opportunities without due regard to the whole lifecycle of a packaged product, including likely final disposal of its packaging. Ideally, used barrier packaging should be recovered in some way to ensure 'closed material loops', and this is an area receiving increasing attention."

Hot properties are biodegradability and compostability, and the latest arrivals on the UK market claim to double the shelf-life of perishable produce. Sira-Flex Resolve 'breathable' film is designed to balance humidity control and O2 and CO2 permeability, thus preventing drying out, fogging, and mould and bacteria growth. The film performs in a unique way, explains marketing manager Mark Lingard: "It does not rely on holes, like other films on the market: the permeability is controlled by the property of the film itself."

Early trials on Australian green beans gave a "remarkable" shelf-life extension of more than 20 days, says the supplier Sirane, considering the difficult conditions faced during transportation in that country. At the other weather extreme, 2012's poor summer in Britain and elsewhere has led to poor fruit and vegetable yields, a situation that in future can be helped by shelf-life-extending technologies, says Sirane.

Evap Environmental Packaging, a competing perforated film, can keep fruit and vegetables fresh for up to twice as long, as has been proved in trials by Asda and Tesco, according to its developer. An enthusiastic market response has given Evap something of a challenge to keep up with the high level of demand.

"It's a nice problem to have - the company is working totally flat out," says Mark Preston of WHEB Partners, Evap's private equity fund management backer. In any barrier packaging system, the substrate is but one factor dictating food quality and shelf-life duration. There are the nature of the food and its treatment before filling to consider, as well as the filling itself, and the sealing, sterilising and storage methods. Long periods in transit and the different environments of the journey between manufacturer and retailer put pressure on barrier systems to be properly tailored and resilient.

"The evolution of barrier packaging is helping the market square up to economic, environmental and social challenges, and is a road to brand innovation."

A German masterbatch innovation has increased the shelf-life of food without introducing a vacuum or protective gas atmosphere. SHELFPLUS O2 allows the plastics material to completely absorb any remaining oxygen and permanently bind it. The developer Albis claims nearly all established types of food packaging plastics can be modified "cheaply and without process limitations" into oxygen absorbers by adding SHELFPLUS O2 masterbatch. This includes transparent clingfilm found on meat and delicatessen counters in supermarkets - and its addition creates "scarcely any extra expense or weight to the material," says Albis.

Barrier plastics container specialist RPC has partnered Albis in implementing SHELFPLUS from the very beginning, more than 12 years ago. The starting point was ready-meal trays for typical German recipes with sensitive ingredients. Mashed potato gone grey with age and faded red cabbage are edible but certainly not so appetising as the creamy white and rich red originals.

Reasons to specify barrier packaging run deeper for food manufacturers than ticking food safety standards boxes and heeding worldwide calls to cut waste. Technical advancement in packaging is raising the bar and 'premiumising' products in the ready-meals category, explains Roland M Schultz, barrier packaging expert with RPC. La Belle Chaurienne now uses a PP/EVOH/PP barrier tray by RPC with SHELFPLUS O2 to guarantee its cassoulets will live up to expectations until the best-before date.

"Maintaining the food quality after six or 12 months or increasing shelf-life from 12 to 18 months has a big advantage," says Schultz, although "it cannot be expressed in a fixed amount of euros or pounds."

Then, commenting on the fresh-food chain, Schultz says, "An increase of the shelf-life from seven days to eight days may be a big improvement and will decrease both food waste and overall cost, even with a more expensive packaging choice."

A road to brand innovation

From a consumer angle, the compelling reasons for using plastic barrier packaging are mainly linked to convenience and avoiding costly waste. Microwaveability is often required. Packs that separate into units or portions are handy for families and also for single-person households. Any remaining product will stay in good condition until the consumer is ready to eat it, which it wouldn't do in an opened large container.

The evolution of barrier packaging is helping the market square up to economic, environmental and social challenges, and is a road to brand innovation, suggests Schultz. Heinz baked beans, for years a cupboard staple in tins, now come in a thermoformed, portionable 4×200g plastic barrier pack and a blow-moulded, reclosable 1kg fridge-door bottle. Barrier technology has also enabled ready-to-eat cold salads, fish products and smaller-diameter cups for on-the-move consumption.

"It is interesting," Schultz notes, "to see that ten years ago, 90% of the ready-meal barrier packaging was sold via traditional supermarkets and that today you find the products in vending machines, airports and railway stations, as well as in petrol stations, often displayed right beside a microwave."

Today's consumers expect to pay a premium for convenience. "The importance of a low item-price is great in a supermarket context and much less so in a travel situation. This is why selling 300ml of a 'soup to go' at £3 in a petrol station is easier to do than in a supermarket."

Schultz explains that when deciding on a barrier packaging system, a cost comparison is made with respect to the whole chain, including the cost of processing, storing, transport and shelf display, and potential savings in food waste: "The amount of food loss has to do with shelf-life length of the closed pack and also with the size of the pack." And so, Schultz argues, individual portion packs can have "a very positive effect" on the outcome of a lifecycle assessment.

As for the future, says Schultz: "New, more efficient scavengers, in both absorption capacity and time, will allow the plastics packaging industry to go for even more challenging applications, such as wet pet food, in the near future. A big challenge for the plastics industry will be to find a transparent alternative to the existing SHELFPLUS range."

Back to the bigger picture, the war on food waste gives separate, ongoing battles for each part of the chain. Strengthening and tailoring barrier systems is one for the packaging sector to get to grips with. But The Co-operative has spelled out that retailers need their millions of consumers to be foot soldiers in what is likely to remain a never-ending war.

Iain Ferguson has worked for The Co-operative Group for 23 years, initially in quality assurance but more recently in packaging.
Finding ways to reduce food waste is “of the utmost importance” to The Co-operative
Barrier packaging can prolong shelf-life and reduce food waste

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