With widespread recent publicity of Britain’s food-waste problem, and with major retailers now more conscious than ever of their green credentials, the produce packaging industry is becoming increasingly aware of the need to address these key concerns.
Sharpak Aylesham business development director Ruth Price says: "We are seeing an emphasis on shelf life and initiatives aimed at reducing food waste. The challenge facing the packaging industry is to educate the consumer on the crucial role packaging plays in preserving and protecting a product."
She adds that last year’s late season and subsequent peaks in demand had a knock-on effect on packaging supply. "Packaging companies had to dramatically increase production at certain peak times by having the correct equipment to handle and react to fluctuating demands."
At the same time, she says: "We saw an emerging trend towards innovation that was partly driven by the growing need for larger pack sizes. Having experienced the impact of the recession for a number of years, while customers continued to focus on costs, we started to see demand for new designs and ideas throughout 2013."
Sharpak has recently launched what it describes as a one-size-fits-all tray for pears, originally developed in-house for a fresh-fruit importer for supply to Tesco. It points out that the tray offers a more efficient use of resources.
Commercial director Rick Calcott explains: "The brief required a multipurpose pear-packaging solution, for any size and variety of pear. We have not compromised on the protection the fruit needs for transit to store, and the unique design is eye-catching and innovative for consumers.
The design also allows more trays to be packed per box, thus reducing the environmental impact in transportation."
Meanwhile, Ireland-based packaging supplier Holfeld Plastics has developed a new material, r-PET eCO, which is low-carbon, lightweight and offers what marketing manager David Riley describes as "a non-plastic appearance". He adds: "It looks as good on a shelf with soft fruit as it does in airline catering."
It has environmental advantages too, he adds, being made from 90 per cent recycled plastic bottles, each bottle weighing an average of 20g or approximately 50,000 bottles to the tonne.
But even these are used sparingly. Holfeld produced just over 43 tonnes of r-PET eCO trays in 2013. Had rigid PET been used instead, this would have required more than 53 tonnes of material.
Compared with a virgin polypropylene product of the same weight, r-PET eCO gives rise to around 1.8 tonnes less CO2 per tonne of trays produced. "A tighter draught angle also means increased capacity of trays on the same footprint, giving better crate and shelf fit as well as allowing more trays per pallet, so fewer road journeys," says Riley.
Strides continue to be made in efforts to maintain product freshness in containers. Specialist packaging materials supplier Sirane’s new absorbent bubble pad, named Dri-Fresh Soft-Hold, has been developed together with partners in the supply chain to better understand factors that affect the shelf life and quality of soft fruit, and so optimise these in the final product.
Managing director Simon Balderson says: "Our customers have been telling us they want pads that offer more protection for the fruit, that extend shelf-life and offer attractive presentation. Soft-Hold ticks all the boxes and the feedback so far has been incredibly positive."
The result of several years of research, development and trialling, Dri-Fresh Soft-Hold has a unique teardrop-shaped embossing pattern that raises the fruit from the surface, encourages airflow, inhibits sweating, damage and corresponding fungal growth, minimises the contact area between each berry and the surface, and prevents them moving around during handling.
It also quickly absorbs and traps any leakage from the fruit to ensure clean and attractive presentation, while the red or black colours either highlight or complement the natural colour of the fruit. Other colours are available on request.
Meanwhile, It’sFresh!, which manufactures ethylene-absorbing strips for fresh-produce packs, last month completed a move to Cranfield University Technology Park, where it intends to further its product development plans with partners at the Bedfordshire university.
In paper-based containers, Austria-based Mondi used the Fruit Logistica show in Berlin earlier this year to demonstrate the waterproof properties of its relaunched ProVantage Kraftliner Aqua and other containerboard papers, particularly under high humidity and extreme temperature.
It claims that these materials are more environmentally friendly because as well as being manufactured from sustainable wood sources the board does not need coating with fossil fuel-derived paraffin wax, which also makes recycling of used containerboard more problematic.
Sales and marketing director Florian Stockert says: "We are seeing strong and increasing demand for sustainable fruit and vegetable packaging solutions. This event will have helped to boost the use of containerboard paper grades as an environmentally sound packaging material."
In agricultural bagging, multinational supplier LC Packaging strengthened its market position at the start of this year with the acquisition of Angus-based supplier SG Baker, after 58 years as an independent company.
Managing director Dennis Fearon says: "We see a natural fit between LC Packaging and SG Baker, and needless to say our first interest is in maintaining the service, quality and commitment our customers have received over previous years, who will now also benefit from the LC scale of operations and integrated supply chains."
Courtauld Commitments: third and final stage
British industry is currently in the third and final phase of the so-called "Courtauld Commitments" being implemented by Government waste-reduction agency WRAP. Phase three runs for three years from 2013 to 2015, with targets measured against a 2012 baseline.
Named after the London gallery in which the original agreement was signed in 2005, signatories include Aldi, Asda, The Cooperative, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.
All three of the current commitments impact on the packaging sector because they target both fresh food waste and greater sustainability in the packaging itself. By 2015, relative to a 2012 baseline, they aim to:
• Reduce household food and drink waste by five per cent — which actually represents a reduction of nine per cent given anticipated rises in food and drink sales.
• Reduce ingredient, product and packaging waste in the grocery supply chain by three per cent on 2012 — an eight per cent cut in real terms.
• Improve packaging design to maximise recycled content, improve recyclability and deliver product protection to reduce food waste while ensuring there is no increase in the carbon impact of packaging — meaning a carbon reduction of three per cent in real terms.
The 2.9 million tonnes of CO2 thus saved would equate to permanently taking one million cars off the road while delivering savings to the economy of up to £1.6bn.
Already, some 2.3 million tonnes of waste has successfully been prevented during the first two phases of the agreement, representing a saving of around £3.5bn.
WRAP chief executive Dr Liz Goodwin says: "Over the course of the three phases of the agreement, a 20 per cent reduction in UK household food waste is achievable — a deeply impressive outcome."