Food packaging: balancing functionality and sustainability

Food loss and food waste remains a big challenge. How do packaging companies go about solving this problem while balancing the durability of the packaging materials used with their function of preserving the freshness of food? Elisabeth Skoda talks to Thomas Kahl, EcoSolutions project manager at Mondi, to get the company’s perspective on the issue.

ES: What is Mondi doing to make consumers aware of the potential of packaging for reducing food waste?

traditional knowledge: Consumers are increasingly aware of the need to make more sustainable choices, which means wasting less food. We partner with our customers and work to make sure we ask the right questions to find the best possible packaging solutions – for their business, their product and the planet. Together with brands and retailers, we have a responsibility to design packaging that balances functionality and sustainability. Shelf life, product protection, portion control and reduction of food waste are essential for product development. This is particularly true for the category of fresh fruits and vegetables, but also meat, cheese and other chilled products. If the right packaging is used, it can help prevent food spoilage; protect food from physical damage in transit and help consumers buy the right amount, providing convenience and portion control.

ES: How would you describe the advantages / limitations of cardboard / paper and flexible food packaging respectively?

traditional knowledge: We are seeing a growing interest from our customers in replacing plastic food packaging with paper-based solutions. In many cases, we are working with our customers to improve the capabilities of paper-based packaging by adding functional barrier properties to give the required technical features that help extend shelf life and avoid wastage of large products. value such as sliced ​​meats or cheese. For example, our removable PerFORMing consists of a fully removable paper and plastic bin that can be easily separated from the bin. The paper can be fully recycled in existing waste streams across Europe. A key benefit of using paper-based solutions is the combination of renewable materials and recyclability and the fact that consumers clearly know how to dispose of it properly. Paper is today the most recycled material in the world and the recycling rate of paper is 72% in Europe, which means that paper-based solutions are much more likely to be recycled and turned into another product at the end of its life, thus becoming part of the circular economy. There are, however, some applications where plastic solutions provide essential functionality, such as barrier properties and extended shelf life, for example in the category of baby and dehydrated food and pet food. The relative advantages of paper, including being renewable and recyclable, should always be taken into account. And, with the increase in R&D being conducted on both paper and plastic, we hope that it will be possible to achieve a similar degree of packaging efficiency with paper solutions and ensure that plastic is recyclable.

ES: What are the different challenges along the value chain (e.g. transport, keeping cool in consumers’ refrigerators after opening the pack, etc.)

traditional knowledge: In Europe, about half of food loss occurs before food reaches the point of consumption: 23% occurs during production; 12% occur during handling, storage and transport after harvest; nine percent is lost during distribution in European markets and five percent occurs during processing. The rest of the waste comes from consumers, caterers and restaurateurs. There are unique challenges at each step of the value chain, but one of our areas of interest is how food is transported to consumers, as this is a critical point of loss. for fresh fruits and vegetables. For example, bruising and other damage is largely due to improper bulk packaging. In Europe, consumer food waste is highest in food groups that must be refrigerated or handled with care, but also through excessive shopping, confusion on labels (best eaten before or before) and poor home storage. As we are seeing an increase in online grocery shopping across Europe, this is going to become a bigger problem.

ES: What is the process for determining which material is best for which food application?

traditional knowledge: The primary function of packaging is to protect what is inside, during production, storage and transport. If not, the resources used to produce both the food and the packaging itself will be wasted. By partnering with our customers using our EcoSolutions approach, we are able to create sustainable and fit for purpose packaging. At the heart of it all are the right questions along the value chain, from retailers to recyclers, to balance the needs of the business, the product and the planet – using paper where possible, plastic when useful. We work with our partners, suppliers and customers to: replace less sustainable products with new solutions; reduce the amount of raw material used; and develop packaging solutions designed to be recycled. On a practical level, the first step is to identify the challenge and then undertake an analysis and only then do we create a number of packaging solutions to test and review. At the end of this process, we end up with a product that is truly fit for purpose.

ES: Can you give us some examples of applications that have succeeded in reducing food waste?

traditional knowledge: Coral Tray is a new 100% recyclable corrugated cardboard packaging tray for the transport of fresh products such as tomatoes. It balances the ability to see fresh product, which is essential for consumers, with stability for stacking and product protection. The sturdy corrugated cardboard ensures that the product is extremely well protected against damage, whether in the basket or on the way back to the consumer. The open structure of the box allows air to circulate reducing the risk of condensation and mold growth. Earlier this year, we also worked with Austrian meat producer Huetthaler to create new, fully recyclable plastic packaging for its meat and sausage products. The solution we have developed minimizes food waste by providing airtight packaging, with barriers against fats, oxygen, aromas and humidity, as well as reducing the total of raw materials used, all without compromising the attractive presentation of the food inside.

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