12 February 2019, 11:51 AM
  • John Bensalhia investigates how modern examples of food packaging combine convenience, simplicity and environmentally friendly solutions
Spotlight on: Packaging

First impressions matter for food packaging. Customers’ eyes pick out eye-catching, distinctively packaged foods. The right logo. A successful combination of colours. Clear, concise explanation of the food. Persuasive reasons for customers to buy.

But food packaging must be more than just eye candy. Modern packaging should not only be attractive, but convenient, practical and environmentally sound.

“As modern life becomes ever-busier, convenience is increasingly important as time-poor consumers look for clever, efficient packaging that is easy to use,” says KM Packaging’s Managing Director, Charles Smithson. “This has shifted the dynamics of packaging design for food, as solutions become more innovative, whilst achieving new heights in terms of functionality with features such as dual-ovenability.”

To meet customers’ requirements, ingenious packaging solutions are available that offer simplicity, practicality and safety. Take for example, the growing amount of customers who don’t wish to handle raw meat. Sainsbury’s has recently produced straight-to-pan plastic doypacks, allowing customers to simply rip the packaging and tip the meat straight into the pan.

Charles Smithson explains that with increasing consumer focus on food safety, demand has risen for packaging solutions that do not require handling of raw foods. With this in mind, KM Packaging has introduced a solution to ensure that customers don’t have to handle raw foods.

“For example, our KOven ovenable flow wrap, incorporating our migration tested OVEN INK technology, ensures foodstuffs can go from supermarket shelf to plate without the need to be directly handled, presenting clear benefits in terms of both convenience and food safety.”

Convenience storage
But if some consumers are concerned about safety issues, others want greater convenience and quicker cooking times. An ideal solution for preparing bacon is Sirane’s microwaveable Sira-Cook Crispy Bacon Pack. Inside is an absorbent board that soaks up the hot bacon fat released during cooking. The packs allow for flexible cooking times, which can be adjusted in accordance with how each customer prefers their bacon done.

KM Packaging’s KPeel PLUS+ range was developed to overcome the challenges faced by food manufacturers when working in demanding tray-sealing conditions. “Significant sealing and contamination challenges can occur when packing tricky foodstuffs, such as oily products, processed vegetables, pasta and sauces,” says Charles Smithson.

“KPeel PLUS+ lidding film works reliably, even under the most testing of circumstances, enabling a broad range of high performance solutions that combine a heavier heat seal coating with excellent transparency, clarity and print properties. KM Packaging can tailor solutions for customers’ specific sealing conditions without compromising on pack functionality and performance.”

KPeel PLUS+ provides effective, reliable seal performance, with key benefits including heavier heat seal coating and wide sealing range, delivering enhanced performance in both hot and cold conditions.

One problem with packaging is the length of storage time. Fruit and vegetables, for example, only have a limited time before they start to go off.

Tesco now offers special packaging for its avocados, cited as an increasingly popular choice of healthy snack. The snag with avocados though, is that once ripe, they can go bad in a fairly rapid space of time. The new packaging from Tesco supplier and fruit and vegetable importers, Greencell, however, adds a couple of extra days of storage time. The key to this is a mixture of UV lighting treatment and improved packaging film that combine to lengthen freshness time for customers.

A common trend in today’s time-intense society is eating on the move. Solutions such as the snack-size Graze Pots from Bunzl Catering Supplies and London Bio Packaging allow customers to tuck into an instant snack any time. With foodservice outlets remaining a popular source of go-to eating, Graze Pots can be used in 175ml, 300ml, 350ml and 425ml sizes. Foodservice operators also benefit from the pot topper for the medium, large and extra-large containers, which keep wet and dry ingredients separate.

Green for go
One of the biggest trends today is environmentally friendly packaging. Calico Cottage’s Managing Director, Nigel Baker, explains that food companies, manufacturers and retailers all have their own challenges when it comes to this sector. “There is a huge commercial battle to be had by food companies to have products that still look attractive but are made from compostable packaging.”

“There is also a challenge for manufacturers and retailers to educate the consumer in disposing of packaging and our experience of some retailers is that they really don’t see it as their job, others have embraced the challenge.”

“The problem with packaging is that there is too much of it,” says Catherine Conway, director, Unpackaged Innovation Ltd. “More specifically, too much of the wrong types of packaging that will still harm the environment. The current infrastructure is not designed for existing packaging as it is. One of the things that we need is better education about packaging, its environmental implications and alternative solutions.”

In March 2018, Calico Cottage became the first in the industry to offer all business customers the option of stocking its impulse bags of sweets in compostable, transparent packaging which breaks down and disappears in soil, under the brand of The Cambridge Confectionery Company. Fully certified and manufactured from sustainably sourced trees, the new bags are converted into pulp and then a liquid cellulose solution. This is then made into a transparent solid film, which is coated and cut to size. The company supplies a wide range of conservation-based attractions such as London and Chester Zoo, Twycross, and Whipsnade.

The key here is that the packaging (including bag and label) is 100% home compostable. “You can literally put it in the ground and it will decay in 6–12 weeks,” explains Nigel. “If by some chance it does get ‘Littered’, it will also decay eventually rather than remain in land or water until it kills something.”

“Many companies claim their items are biodegradable but in fact they may take centuries to degrade, others claim they are industrially compostable but in fact very few items will go to an industrial composting facility.”

The research goes on into alternative methods of environmentally sound packaging solutions. An innovative potential substitute for plastic food packaging is a new material that combines crab shells and tree fibres.

The Georgia Institute of Technology came up with the new source that potentially could replace plastic packaging as a means of keeping food products fresh. The material is a flexible film similar to plastic packaging film, but is formed from chitin layers from the crab’s exoskeleton and tree cellulose. During developments, the material was found to have up to a 67% reduction in oxygen permeability over other forms of polyethylene terephthalate (PTT).

Maximum benefits
Unpackaged’s unique concept has introduced refillable dispensers that allow both individuals and businesses to reuse and refill, thus reducing levels of packaging waste. “Unpackaged began in 2006,” says Catherine Conway. “We were the first modern Zero Waste retailer, and given that we started 12 years ago, we were ahead of our time.”

“Our aim is to enable customers to bring their own containers to a store. We have expanded in conjunction with Planet Organic to give shoppers a high quality experience while helping the environment at the same time.”

Today, Unpackaged is bigger and more popular than ever before, offering a bespoke refill section (designed and tailored to the retailer’s requirements) and an ‘Unpackaged At’ unit in which everything is set up and ready to go.

Recently, Unpackaged has brought its refill stations to retailers including Welbeck Farm Shop and Macknade Fine Foods. Customers can bring in and fill their own containers with foods like cereals, pulses, and rice. “We want to bring expertise in this area to other people, and provide the maximum benefits,” says Catherine.
The benefits of Unpackaged are threefold. For customers, it’s a matter of value, as Catherine explains. “Customers get better value products but of the same quality, and the Unpackaged system means that there is no food or money wastage for them at home.”

Retailers, meanwhile, benefit from better margins and increased turnover, a boost in customer loyalty, and the chance to showcase a range of new products that will widen the customer base further (especially those who are interested in health and the environment). And from an environmental viewpoint, the Unpackaged concept means reduced levels of carbon emissions and waste to landfill and incineration.

Pack to the future
Charles Smithson says that KM Packaging expects to continue working with its customers to reduce plastic use and eliminate unnecessary packaging, as well as further innovating the materials it offers (both plastic and non-plastic) and their performance, to successfully meet the needs of its customers long-term. “We collaborate with our customers to develop lightweight, flexible solutions to help them down-gauge their packaging, presenting significant economic and environmental benefits.”

“It’s key to the industry going forward that consumers understand the important role of packaging in extending shelf life and reducing food waste, which is an enormous problem worldwide.”

Charles adds that plastics play a vital role in offering functionality and performance to minimise food waste. With many innovations coming to market, including compostable products, ‘green’ polymers and a wide variety of renewable and recyclable solutions, it is important to consider any compromise on food shelf life that can result from manufacturers moving to these solutions.

Nigel Baker says that Calico is working on reducing single use plastic wherever it can, but adds that it remains a challenge. “The strength of the bags makes some applications impossible and once we increase the thickness of a material to gain strength we end up with something that won’t home compost in which case it will almost certainly end up in recycling.”

Meanwhile, Unpackaged is “absolutely booming” at the moment, according to Catherine Conway. “We are growing with other companies and have some exciting new projects in the pipeline with bigger retailers and supermarkets.”

“Our concept is not about gimmicks,” concludes Catherine. “It’s about helping to create a more sustainable environment and to educate people about the importance of reusable packaging.”

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