Packaging and Plastics in Sustainable Food Production

1. Introduction

Food manufacturers, producers, and retailers should start paying attention to the increasing ill effects of plastics used for packaging food products. All the stakeholders have an urgent role to play in limiting the impact of climate change, especially when it comes to finding the sweet spot of reducing both food waste and plastic use. The complexity comes from the fact that plastic plays a vital role in modern-day food production. It can be advocated that its pros outweigh its cons. It has a crucial role in preventing food from becoming waste; it makes the concept of farm to fridge over thousands of kilometers a reality, and most importantly it increases the time of a food remaining eatable. However, it is also true that the shift away from convenience packaging and single–use plastics is very much needed for the sake of the planet and hence for our survival. We have to find a way to both sustain our modern living as well as care for the planet. One thing is very clear that plastic bashing is definitely not the way forward, and a balanced approach is required to achieve sustainability!

2. Standards present for the cause

To achieve sustainability, judicious use of plastics packaging resources are very much needed. One such way is to implement ISO 14001 to develop and put in place a waste reduction plan in the manufacturing facility. The standard supports environmental best practice, helping the producers find ways to reduce ways and rethink the design of the packaging, while simultaneously benefiting from cost savings.

Another important set of standards to consider is the ISO 18600 series, which allow organizations to make an environmental assessment of the packaging they develop and use, throughout its lifecycle.

From ISO 18602 (optimization of the packaging system) to ISO 18603 (requirements for packaging to be considered reusable) and ISO 18606 (organic recycling), the series supports innovation and sustainability, while still delivering on food safety and reduced food waste.

Finally, it’s important to ensure that the packaging is not only sustainable but also safe. ISO 22000 sets out the requirements for a food safety management system (FSMS). This standard is used to drive continuous improvement in the food packaging materials and build a safe food supply chain.

3. Alternatives to Conventional Plastics Packaging

Because of the harmful effects of plastics, there are several research ongoing for developing sustainable alternatives to plastics. These special classes of polymers displays comparable mechanical properties as that of plastics such as tensile strength, rupture strength, bursting strength, etc. and therefore promises a lot in the field of packaging technology. In addition to that, some classes are also biodegradable. These bioplastics, named so as they are sourced from organic matter, are capable of undergoing decomposition into carbon dioxide, methane, water, inorganic compounds, or biomass in which predominant mechanism is the enzymatic action of microorganisms. Depending on their origins, these plastics may be classified as being either bio-based or petrochemical-based.

The former are mostly biodegradable by nature and produced from natural origins (plants, animals or microorganisms) such as polysaccharides (e.g. Starch, cellulose, lignin, and chitin), proteins (e.g. gelatine, casein, wheat gluten, silk, and wool) and lipids (e.g. plant oils and animal oils). However, it is also true that the diversity of biodegradable materials and their varying properties makes it difficult to make simple, generic assessments such as biodegradable products are all ‘good’ or petrochemical-based products are all ‘bad’.

4. The 3 R’s

Recycling, Reusing, and Reducing are of paramount importance. The packaging concepts can be operated in a more sustainable manner. By turning the packages into recyclable-ready solutions, by having a scope on pooling systems and by reducing the amount of packaging materials and thus minimizing the impact of the environment. Food packaging plays a crucial role in preventing food waste, which carries a much larger environmental impact than the packaging itself. The producer should never see the packaging as a separate identity; it must be viewed as a highly functional part of the product. Adapting the packaging should never lead to more food waste. On the contrary, so if packaging isn’t crucial (for e.g. packing individual entities), the producer should not use it. And when packaging is absolutely indispensable for maintaining the freshness and quality of a product, the most sustainable way must be opted.

5. Ways to level up the 3 R’s

There are majorly three ways the 3 R’s can be properly implemented:

    • Development of new packaging concepts in both B2B and B2C focusing on food waste; functional design to empty packaging materials completely and reduce food spills.
    • Explore conceptually new biobased materials derived from waste streams (for example: sugar cane bagasse, and micella from mushrooms) for rigid packaging applications like trays and buckets.
    • Re-think plastic materials used for stretching and shrinking applications like bundling shrinks and pallet stretches.

4. Further Reading

    • Marsh, Kenneth, and Betty Bugusu. “Food packaging—roles, materials, and environmental issues.” Journal of food science3 (2007): R39-R55.
    • Brody, Aaron L., et al. “Innovative food packaging solutions.” Journal of food science8 (2008): 107-116.
    • Siracusa, Valentina, et al. “Biodegradable polymers for food packaging: a review.” Trends in Food Science & Technology12 (2008): 634-643.
    • Garnett, Tara. “Food sustainability: problems, perspectives and solutions.” Proceedings of the nutrition society1 (2013): 29-39.

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