A hidden hero of Covid-19: temperature controlled packaging

22 March 2021, 10:42 AM
  • With more retailers selling food online, ensuring products travel to their destination safely in a temperature controlled environment is of the utmost importance
A hidden hero of Covid-19: temperature controlled packaging

With the dust settling following the initial disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re just starting to see how coronavirus is changing the way we shop. Fears of catching and spreading the virus are keeping many customers out of food shops, and online orders experienced huge growth over the last year.

The hidden hero behind this surge in food deliveries was temperature controlled packaging, as it became more important than ever to ensure food was protected in transit. A survey by the Global Cold Chain Alliance found that three-quarters of its members believe the pandemic will cause a rise in the growth of e-commerce and direct-to-consumer delivery of chilled and/or frozen products, relative to their growth pre-Covid.

“The situation created by the Covid-19 pandemic saw more and more consumers turning to online food shopping,” says Alex Pawley of Icertech. Reuben Birch, sales manager at Thergis, adds that there has been a “massive expansion in the direct-to-consumer fresh and frozen food delivery market. For many food producers this is now a major route to market.”

Packaging solutions ensure that these products arrive in perfect condition. “With an overwhelming number of deliveries being sent via parcel couriers, it is inevitable that there will sometimes be delays with a delivery, and a reliable packaging solution which offers 24+ hours’ performance means that if there is a delay customers can feel safe in the knowledge that their goods will arrive in the same condition they left them in,” Alex continues.

Constant transformations

From paper to polystyrene, there are numerous options for retailers and suppliers to choose from when it comes to keeping their products safe en route to their destination – and the type of packaging you choose will be determined by your business’ goals and preferences.

For frozen products that need to be kept below -15°C, traditional, reliable polystyrene insulation is a winner. Chilled products, meanwhile can be kept to between 2°C to 8°C with paper-based systems, polystyrene, foil and other solutions.

Internal protection for fresh food or liquids can also be critical to ensuring the food is delivered intact. Innovation in the temperature controlled packaging sector is constant – and because of the pandemic, it’s growing at an even faster pace. “We’re certainly seeing more temperature control initiatives coming to market over the last few months,” says Paul Jenkins, founder of ThePackHub, which tracks innovation in the packaging industry.

With no end expected to the e-commerce trend, this sector is expected to continue pushing the limits of temperature performance and sustainability. “Technology will continue to improve, so costs will come down which will open up more opportunities,” Paul predicts, including the use of real-time monitoring with near-field communication. But the eco-friendliness of temperature control products will remain key: “The measure that everyone is moving towards or being judged by is sustainability.”

Back to basics

While there are many avenues for high-tech solutions in temperature controlled packaging, sometimes looking at the natural tools at our disposal offers the most advanced options for food and drink retailers.

Woolcool has been pioneering sustainable packaging for more than 10 years – with the help of Mother Nature. The multi award-winning company has trailblazed the use of natural materials in temperature controlled packaging solutions, backing up their sustainable credentials with millions of pounds worth of research and development.

The result is a flexible range of chilled packaging options which outperform manmade insulators, while being environmentally sound. Behind this hard science is a simple idea – that after millions of years of evolution, 100% sheep’s wool is a smart fibre; a superior insulator that is as good at keeping packaging contents chilled as it is at keeping sheep warm.

The pure wool is formed into liners that can be used to provide insulation in a wide range of options supplied by the firm, from bespoke packaging to off-the-shelf solutions. “We like to build a partnership with customers,” said managing director Josie Morris.

“That means using our expertise to support and advise, but also to listen to what they want for their product. The key to delivering chilled goods is to never let a customer down, and we have always had the attitude that we will go the extra mile for a partner.” Those partners include household names like Abel & Cole, Innocent, Fortnum & Mason and Gousto, thanks to their research based credentials and green ethos.

That ethos, which has been a founding principle of the company since it was created more than a decade ago, is also based on the remarkable properties of wool. Wool is recyclable, reusable, biodegradable, compostable and abundant. Unlike man-made insulators, it rots in landfill and breaks down in seawater.

Woolcool has gone further still, launching a ‘circular economy’ scheme, which allows customers to return the wool liners from their packaging, free of charge, so the firm can clean it and reuse it.

Sustainable innovation

In recent years, cutting-edge scientific innovations have also led to more environmentally friendly temperature controlled products. Hydropac is at the forefront of sustainable innovation, and for 2021 it has introduced a raft of new products in order to drive the packaging sector into the future.

Take ClimaCell for example, a 100% recyclable product with an eco-friendly accreditation for compostability in the works. ClimaCell was created through a partnership between Hydropac and US-based TemperPack, and according to Colin Rowland of Hydropac, the uptake has been “astounding”.

Made of bio-based renewable materials, ClimaCell is plant-based packaging, and compared to plastic, polystyrene or foam-based insulators, it reduces carbon emissions by an average of 65%.

“There simply isn’t a product out there currently ticking all of these boxes that actually works as well as ClimaCell,” Colin says. Hydropac also has a new and improved version of EnviroIce, the first compostable and fully sustainable ice pack. “We will be updating the formula for allowing the shelf life of EnviroIce to last a little bit longer before starting to break down,” Colin explains.

The company will also launch EnviroGel, using a unique formula of gel that is organic and plastic polymer-free, meaning it can be poured down the drain safely. “The current ‘industry standard’ gel formulas are only disposable via incineration, which means the flakes of gel, once dried out, are highly likely to end up in our waste streams and ultimately in our oceans,” Colin tells Speciality Food. “This is why Hydropac has taken time, money and a huge effort to launch EnviroGel.”

An enduring classic

Polystyrene, though often maligned for its perceived poor eco-credentials, provides traditional, guaranteed protection. “Expanded foams offer excellent thermal performance, which helps to ensure temperature-sensitive products stay fresh during transit,” says Samantha Barrett of JB Packaging.

“It’s their very low rate of thermal conductivity that means expanded polystyrene (EPS) can outperform other temperature controlled packaging solutions.” EPS is also a good choice for companies looking to cut food waste. “Tests carried out demonstrated that polystyrene boxes are thermally the most effective option for transporting fresh food,” Samantha said.

Polystyrene boxes far outperformed the alternatives and were able to maintain a temperature of below 5°C for a full 72 hours. Plus, EPS is more eco-friendly than most people realise. “In reality, the material of a manufactured polystyrene box is a whopping 98% air, so it only consists of 2% material – making it extremely resource efficient.

“Expanded polystyrene boxes often get a bad reputation when they are disposed of irresponsibly. Sadly, within the UK local recycling infrastructure it is not as prominent even though EPS can in fact be fully recycled,” she adds.

JB Packaging accepts clean EPS at all of its plants for recycling. Clean material can be reused in the manufacturing of new EPS boxes and material, while contaminated materials can still be turned into rigid plastic products, like coat hangers or even wooden fence panels and decking substitutes.

“There are clear challenges around the single-use plastics debate however it is important not to lose sight of the positive role that good, reusable or recyclable plastic packaging can play in protecting products and making supply chains more sustainable,” Samantha concludes.

Alex Pawley, sales and marketing director, Icertech on offering the complete package

Companies mustn’t forget that packaging is part of their brand, too. Custom label printing ensures that products have the wow factor, while still being protected. “Packaging can act as an excellent tool for businesses to communicate and strengthen their brand,” says Icertech’s Alex. “We can supply bespoke versions of many of our bestselling packaging products, enabling our customers to create a unique and branded solution that not only does the job in terms of performance, but works as an invaluable marketing tool,” she adds. “We’re able to offer custom print on quantities as low as 300 boxes, whilst providing our customers with clear guidance on how to really bring their brand to life on a box. “Whilst we are proud to say our customers have always been happy with the quality of our products, we know from feedback that it is our customer service that sets us apart from other suppliers,” Alex says. “With over 30 years’ experience in packaging we are in an excellent position to guide our customers through the entire process, providing free samples, offering bespoke options, and providing advice on optimum packing configurations.”

Q&A with… Reuben Birch, sales manager, Thergis

How are your gel packs made?
Thergis gel packs are manufactured on-site at our modern central production facility in the East Midlands using the very latest technology. With our flexible production facility we can manufacture gel packs in bespoke sizes to meet customer requirements for specific chill times or packaging designs. Our gel pack contents are non-toxic, food safe and drain safe, meaning consumers can easily dispose of the gel without any concerns about its environmental impact. Knowing that our gel packs directly help our customers get their products delivered in prime condition is really important to us; it drives us to keep developing our gel pack range to meet our customers’ changing needs.

What are the benefits of using gel packs?
Since the lockdown there has been a massive expansion in the directto-consumer fresh and frozen food delivery market. For many food producers this is now a major route to market, providing consumers with a convenient source of high quality, fresh and specialist foods, meal and recipe kits. Without the correct size and volume of gel packs and thermal packaging, the thermal properties of the packaging may not be sufficient to keep the food items at the optimum temperature throughout their shipping journey. Consequently, goods may be damaged in transit resulting in both food wastage and customers being disappointed with the quality of what they receive, risking the supplier’s reputation and customer retention.

What advantages does an on-site manufacturing facility offer?
To meet demand, we have invested in and expanded our UK-based state-of-the-art gel pack production facility. Because we have access to our own facility, this means that we can fulfill both large volume and short turnaround orders quickly and easily, ensuring customers can always meet demand for their products and deliveries. We’ve recently helped several food delivery businesses serve their customers when their current supplier was unable to meet their additional requirements for gel packs because of our flexible production facility. Our in-house testing facility also allows us to work directly with customers to ensure they have best-in-industry solutions for the packaging and shipping of their temperature-sensitive products. At Thergis, we offer bespoke printed gel packs, providing customers with the option to have gel packs produced complete with their company logos and messaging on them, enhancing their branding with every delivery. We also offer custom branded paper bags, delivery boxes and tape, giving customers the opportunity of a completely branded solution for their home delivery and pallet shipping.

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