The different functions of food packaging
Besides transportation and distribution, packaging can also be used as a form of advertising. A visually pleasing package attracts attention, which is vital in an increasingly competitive market.
In developed countries, where packaging is widely used, food spoilage can be as low as 3% for processed foods and up to 15% for fresh food, while in less-developed countries, where packaging is minimal, food spoilage can be as high as 50 percent.
Packaging in numbers
Globally, the value of the packaging industry was USD$851 billion in 2017, and it reached USD$876 billion in 2018, according to data from Smithers Pira. By 2023 the industry is expected to have a value over USD$1 trillion, and by 2028 an additional USD$$150 billion will be added to the market. Overall, an expansion of 3% per annum is expected to occur up until 2028.
The largest market is located in Asia, representing more than 42% of the industry, followed by North America (24.3%) and Europe (18.4%).
In terms of materials used, cardboard (35%) dominates -primarily due to the growth in e-commerce-, followed by flexible packaging (23%) made with plastic or paper. Flexible packaging gained over rigid plastic mainly due to its lower weight. Retail food packaging leading material is flexible packaging, followed by rigid plastic, paper-based containers, liquid cartons, metal, and glass.
Packaging in agriculture
Packaging is an intrinsic part of agricultural production; moving the product safely from one part of the production cycle to the next is key to achieving a successful business. Non-recyclable packaging is often used because of its convenience and price; waxed cardboard or plastic wrap are cheaper than pressed wood.
The reliance on non-recyclable packaging is based on its ability to do a good enough job for its price. However, this is not always the case; broccoli, when packed in unrecyclable waxed cardboard boxes, often reach its destination in an unfit-to-sale state due to bacterial growth.
Developing safe and effective sustainable packaging is critical to achieving a sustainable agriculture system.
Plastic pollution is a big problem; from the 350 million tons of plastic produced each year, 8 million end up in the ocean. Moreover, plastic food packaging is the most common beach trash. Nine of the top ten items retrieved from beach cleanups are related to food and drink; the most common items are food wrappers, straws, forks, knives and spoons, plastic beverage bottles, plastic bottle caps, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, and plastic cups.
There was a rapid increase in plastic from the 1950s onwards, and currently, the usage of single-use plastic is rising, particularly in developing countries. Globally, less than 10% of plastic is recycled; this is particularly troubling when we consider that plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade.
The plastic problem in the ocean reached such a level of notoriety that the United Nations Assembly passed a resolution signed by more than 200 countries to eliminate plastic pollution in the seas. Although the treaty is not legally binding, some countries have already passed local legislation to decrease their plastic pollution.
Food packaging is made from various materials, including plastics, glass, metal, ceramics, cardboard, wood, and waxes. The majority of modern packaging is made of glass, plastic, paper, and paperboard. The manufacture of food packaging materials involves using various resources, including energy, water, chemicals, minerals, petroleum, fibers, and wood. The manufacturing process often generates emissions that include particulates, greenhouse gases, toxic contaminants, and wastewater.
Glass manufacturing emits greenhouse gasses, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulates containing heavy metals. The manufacture of aluminum requires significant energy quantities; it uses a lot of water and creates a toxic sludge that may contain heavy metals and radioactive elements; the emission includes greenhouse gasses, sulfur dioxide, and wastewater. The manufacture of paper and cardboard involves a lot of land used to obtain the fibers. The milling process uses a lot of energy and water; air emissions include sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrox oxides. Plastic manufacturing emits significant amounts of greenhouse gasses, hydrofluorocarbons, nitrous oxides, sulfuric hexafluoride, and perfluorocarbons.
Sustainable food packaging
The most significant trend in food packaging is sustainability. The concern over the environmental impact of products is a long-lasting phenomenon. The EU launched an initiative geared towards circular economy principles, focusing on plastic waste and single-use plastic packaging.
Reusable food packaging is an alternative for diverting plastic from landfills and oceans. Not so long ago, food containers were reused, milk and beer bottles were returned to the manufacturer for cleaning and reuse. Shoppers can bring their own containers to stock from bulk bins, besides carrying their own shopping bags.
When reusable containers are not the solution, more sustainable packaging alternatives are needed. Researchers, entrepreneurs, and companies are stepping up to solve this issue. Non-petroleum-based plastics – made from corn or sugarcane- better recycling technologies, degradable plastics are in the works.
Consumers are putting recycling responsibilities mainly in the brands. More than two-thirds of US shoppers say that manufacturers should be responsible for environmentally friendly choices. While 55% of Brazilian consumers agree that companies should offer sustainable solutions and 45% of Swedish consumers say brands should use more recycled materials.
As sustainability has risen as a critical motivator for consumers, brands have begun to look for innovative packaging alternatives to show their sustainability commitment. Nestle has committed to making 100% of its packaging reusable or recyclable by 2025. Unilever followed closely with its own sustainable packaging commitment. Besides these giants, many other companies are actively researching new packaging technologies; TIPA announced new materials that are fully biodegradable in industrial and home composting.
The rise of food e-commerce has had associated the need to standardize packaging to protect the product during the last mile, besides being perceived as a sustainable choice by consumers. In development are packaging alternatives that weigh less, are sustainable, and perform well in the delivery market.
Innovative alternatives in sustainable agricultural packaging
Pressed wood packaging provides flexibility, versatility, and durability. Packages with these materials save space and are easy to transport due to their collapsible assembly.
Food wraps made from seaweed and casein. These wraps reduce plastic reliance, have a lower carbon footprint, promote positive environmental practices, and can even be edible.
Plastic-less fruit containers specially designed for avocados, apples, and other fruits; are able to preserve the produce from damage while looking enticing for the consumer. These packaging solutions are critical for the fruit export industry.
Food coatings that can be applied to fruits and vegetables also help to preserve food. By preventing dehydration and serving as a protecting barrier from bacteria, coatings can lower food waste. Food coatings can be made from a combination of ingredients, including synthetic and natural ones. The main advantage of using natural coatings is their reliance on natural -non-plastic- ingredients; they are also better accepted by discerning consumers and strict legislations -such as the EU-. Fruit coatings are critical for a more sustainable fruit export industry.
Consumers can make a difference
Consumers’ actions and preferences have led to changes in the industry, a more sustainable food packaging industry is possible. Consumers can continue to make a difference by using less plastic in the kitchen, choosing beeswax wrappers over plastic wrap, avoiding plastic cutlery, and electing to use compostable materials, carrying their own bags when shopping, and selecting zero-waste stores that have been opening in new places, allowing consumers to buy bulk products in reusable containers.
Fruit and vegetables are often sold in bulk, and many companies also pack them to extend their shelf-life; PolyNatural has found an alternative. The company produces a thin edible fruit coating made with natural materials that is tasteless and can be applied to fruits to make them last longer. By using this coating, it is possible to extend the shelf-life of fruits and reduce food waste.
Sustainable food trends are here to stay, particularly considering that the largest majority of Gen Z want eco-friendly packaging and seek environmentally sustainable products. From fruit coatings that make produce last longer to biodegradable and compostable plastics sustainable packing is steadily growing.