Flexibles step up on food shelf life | Sector Focus

Packaging is increasingly recognised as a vital weapon in the fight against food waste. Philip Chadwick reports on how the flexible plastics sector is innovating to play its part in packaging’s biggest challenge


It’s a staggering figure – around 2.9m tonnes of food and drink is wasted each year, according to Wrap. It’s a number that’s been troubling politicians and environmentalists but it is a problem that packaging can help tackle. And recent developments in the flexible plastics sector suggest that keeping food fresh for longer could aid the fight against food waste.

“Well designed packaging can help consumers buy the right amount of food and then keep it in the best condition for longer,” explains Alan Davey, director of innovation at the plastic packaging group Linpac Packaging.

In September, supermarket giant Waitrose turned to flexibles for its steaks. New ‘skin packs’ replaced the traditional trays and had not only the desired effect in terms of shelf life (the steaks increase their shelf life by three days) but also in terms of weight – 30 tonnes of packaging a year is saved.

It sounds like a dream scenario for retailers and brands but how are specialists in the flexibles market responding to the challenge and is it a particularly lucrative revenue stream? For plastic packaging group Biopac, the subject has been on its radar for a while. Back in April this year, the company became involved in Isa-Pack, an international project that has secured a €3m grant from the European Commission.

“The objective of the Isa-Pack project is to develop a flexible, sustainable, active and intelligent technology platform for the packaging of fresh food produce,” explains Biopac managing director John Bright.

The aim is to develop two novel biopolymer materials: stretch wrap films suitable for the replacement of conventional PVC stretch film; and gas barrier sheets and films suitable for the manufacture of modified atmosphere packaging. The project seeks to reduce retailer supply chain wastage of fresh food produce by up to 75%.

Biopac isn’t the only one striving to develop flexible plastic materials that will ultimately combat food waste. Simon Balderson, managing director at food packaging specialist Sirane, reports that results from Australia and South Africa, for its Sira-Flex Resolve product, have been encouraging.

“In Australia, we have managed to extend the shelf life of green beans by 18 days,” he explains. “In South Africa, we’ve achieved eight days extra on retail tomatoes and up to 19 days on strawberries.”  This hasn’t been done overnight. Work began three years ago and Sirane has gone through plenty of trial and error. Balderson explains that traditionally in the fruit and veg sector, laser perforations are used to make tiny holes in the flexible film. The aim for the packaging is this area is a tricky one – oxygen and carbon dioxide need to be let into the pack, however not too much. For example, while carbon dioxide can help kill bugs it is an acidic gas – not good for the fresh produce.

Sirane’s approach has been to shift away from the perforated holes approach and “change the chemistry in the material itself”. It’s a move that’s required a fine balance and, adds Balderson, the materials it uses are “quite forgiving” for fruit and vegetables.

Bread packs

Another company that’s been targeting food is Symphony Environmental Technologies. The bioplastics specialist has found uses for its oxo-biodegradable Masterbatch additive in a raft of applications, such as anti-fungal material. The development has been used in several forms, such as PVC lining ventilation pipes, but in packaging trials have started in bread packaging. Symphony has also been experimenting with raspberries and strawberries.

“Our Masterbatch on plastic packaging can inhibit the growth of fungi and mould, extending the life of fresh food,” explains Michael Stephen, deputy chairman at Symphony. “If you add Masterbatch to the original polymer then it makes the plastic hostile to the fungal spores.”  Meat and poultry has also come under the microscope for the flexibles market. Waitrose’s development aside, there are efforts to incorporate skin packs.

Linpac has been working with a raft of partners to develop a range of lightweight shallow rigid tray vacuum skin packs. The design is intended to extend the shelf life of vacuum skin film technologies with the presentation benefits of rigid pre-formed recycled PET and polypropylene trays.

So far the company has developed three application styles: a normal vacuum skin pack, which is below the flange protrusion; a protruding vacuum skin pack, slightly above the flange protrusion; and a super-protruding vacuum skin pack, which is a high protrusion above the flange.

However for flexible packaging alone to have an impact on this sector, which includes fish, is tricky. As Sirane’s Balderson points out, there needs to be a gas barrier. As far as Linpac is concerned, while flexibles are on the rise, rigid plastics is still the packaging of choice for both retailers and consumers.

“Certainly in the fresh meat sector, rigid packaging is preferred by consumers because many do not like handling chickens or joints of meat and the rigid tray offers a barrier to this,” explains Joanna Stephenson, vice president of marketing and innovation at Linpac. “For food manufacturers and retailers, rigid packs offer better protection to the products within both during transit and storage in-store or at home. This is particularly important for delicate bakery items and fresh fruit, which is prone to bruising.”

Stephenson adds that it comes down to the need to protect the product and improve on-shelf presentation. “Manufacturers of flexible packaging will have to demonstrate solutions to those concerns for it to dominate the territory of rigid plastics.”

Perhaps a mix and match between flexibles and rigid plastics will be the way forward. Whatever the outcome, the flexible plastics sector certainly offers the food market a range of solutions to the thorny issue of food waste.  And if those developments can aid its efforts to reduce packaging for retailers and brands, then it could be a material worth its weight in gold.