Achieving equilibrium: How packagers are extending fresh produce shelf life while cutting material use
24 Jan 2024 — Controlling fresh food waste while reducing environmentally heavy material usage like plastics continues to be a challenge for packagers and policymakers. Debates over whether packaging is needed or whether fresh produce should be sold loose is an ongoing dispute by researchers and industry bodies.
In France, a ban on plastic wrapping for unprocessed fruit and vegetables was enforced in 2022, and a report by the British organization WRAP also found that less spoilage resulted from unpackaged fresh goods.
However, with food waste contributing such a significant amount of GHG emissions, and with many regions of the world relying on extended shelf lives to receive fresh foods, the packaging industry is continuing to innovate designs that reduce material footprint while preserving fresh food for as long as possible.
We speak to experts from Sealpac and ATS-Tanner to hear about their latest products.
The PerfoTec solution by Sealpac.Laser perforation
Marcel Veenstra, marketing and communications manager at Sealpac, explains how the company’s technology can achieve extended shelf life while reducing plastic use.
“It is common knowledge that fresh produce needs to be able to breathe and that each type of fruit or vegetable has its own breathing pattern, also known as the respiration rate. Most of the time, this is ‘solved’ by packaging fresh produce in bags or clamshells with large holes,” he says.
“But detailed regulation of the oxygen level of fresh produce is a critical factor to achieve optimal shelf life at retail and maximum freshness at the final customer. Our partner PerfoTec has a solution to reach the optimum protective atmosphere inside the pack, also known as Equilibrium Modified Atmosphere Packaging (EMAP).”
EMAP is achieved by laser perforation of the top film, where the amount and size of the holes are perfectly tuned to the breathing pattern of the product, Veenstra explains. Packagers can create a reclosable pack with optimal freshness by combining this with Sealpac’s EasyLid system, which provides sealing and lidding in one step. Sealpac calls this its PerfoLid concept.
“In Switzerland, we have a customer called Kellermann AG that produces innovative salad shakers in a practical to-go cup. These are packaged without preservatives. This is a big challenge in terms of shelf life, optics, taste and safety. When the salads are cut, an irreversible process is triggered that leads to optical changes, which will only slow down by taking out oxygen. This is why they apply MAP packaging on our tray sealers for optimal shelf life.”
Thomas Weber, content manager at ATS-Tanner, says the company’s banding designs are advantageous for preserving fresh food and cutting out needless packaging materials.
“Firstly, banding always means only as much packaging as is absolutely necessary. Banding, therefore, reduces packaging waste. Another advantage is the simultaneous bundling and labeling without additional work steps and without adhesive labels,” he says.
“Of course, bands only bundle several products but can also present individual products in a promotionally effective way.”
ATS-Tanner banding solutions.German supermarket Rewe in Germany is an example of where banded fruit and vegetables are considered unpackaged because the printed bands perform all the labeling and bundling functions that would otherwise have to be performed by conventional (plastic) packaging plus additional labels, he highlights.
“Another advantage is minimizing work steps and thus saving costs, time and effort. One example of this is celery stalks and other elongated vegetables, which in Spain are automatically banded directly in the field as part of the harvesting process and then sent directly to the retail trade. And last but not least, paper bands can securely close fruit and vegetable packaging of all kinds without the use of film or adhesive.”
However, the debate over whether cutting materials like plastics reduces the overall footprint of fresh products has no simple answer, says Weber.
“This is a complex question, and there is no easy answer. I am certainly aware that our bands are not the packaging solution for all fruits and vegetables. Plastic packaging can be effective in reducing food waste by extending the shelf life of food. However, consumer acceptance and proper use of optimized packaging is a challenge.”
“Comprehensive communication about the benefits of plastic packaging in terms of food shelf life, its correct return to a functioning cycle, greater consideration of environmentally friendly alternatives, optimized logistics processes and, last but not least, personal behavioral changes are essential factors,” he says.
Policymaking in 2024
As the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) revisions come into place this year, Weber says policymakers in the EU must enact binding, comprehensible and practical laws as quickly as possible.
“Ultimately, simple and comprehensible communication is important. On the one hand, for packaging manufacturers, for the companies that package food and — very importantly — also for consumers, who need to know how to handle packaging,” he says.
“What we are seeing is that the food market is looking for compostable and recyclable solutions to use in their products. The particular problem we may find is that even if our PP materials are recyclable, the infrastructure in place is not suitable to separate these films and recycle them properly, so it will be difficult to get a declaration that the materials are recyclable. This declaration will become mandatory in the near future.”
Veenstra says, “unfortunately, the general tendency towards plastic packaging appears to be negative. When it comes to plastic waste ending up in nature, for example, seawater, this is understandable. But one must never forget the benefits of protecting a fresh product and prolonging its shelf life to avoid food waste. This is a balance that legislation also needs to address.”
“For 2024, there are no challenges, only opportunities that we have to harness to the best of our capabilities,” he concludes.
By Louis Gore-Langton
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