Going Plastic-Free In A World Of Sustainable Food Packaging

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018 | 995 Views


Following news that a Dutch supermarket has opened the world’s first plastic-free food aisle, Robert Glass, ABB’s global food and beverage communications manager, explores the alternatives to plastic food packaging.

While there has been extensive talk about the environmental considerations of food manufacturing and packaging in the last 20 years, these conversations often focused on carbon emission and energy usage of food plants. However, since 2016, the world has increasingly grown to realize the environmental impact of plastics.

Recently, Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza opened the world’s first plastic-free aisle in one of its stores in Amsterdam. With that, more supermarkets will likely follow the plastic-free trend subsequently. Food manufacturers will need to rethink their food packaging materials to maximize their products’ market penetration in years to come.

From chicken feather plastics to liquid wood, there are numerous experimental biodegradable alternatives to plastic, but which are we most likely to see in wide usage in the next few years?

Glass

Glass has been a staple of the bottling industry for years, but plastic bottles have risen in popularity in the past few decades. While the price difference was initially the main driver for many manufacturers considering switching to plastics, it is likely we’ll see industry shift back to glass in the coming years.

Glass is advantageous because it is endlessly recyclable, meaning that it can be used, recycled and recovered repeatedly without a loss in quality or purity. This is in stark contrast to plastics, where the material fibres shorten with repeated recycling and become ineffective and unusable.

With glass bottles, there’s also an element of consumer appeal. When global beverage brand Coca Cola brought back its glass bottles in 2014, it enjoyed an increase in sales.

Aluminium

According to the labour force survey, one-third of European households only have a single occupant. The US has also experienced an increase in single person households since the 1920s. Therefore, single-serve portions and ready meals have grown in popularity, bringing with them a rise in microwaveable plastic packaging.

As a replacement for these plastic trays, food manufacturers can instead turn to aluminium. Like glass, aluminium is endlessly recyclable and its sustainability means it has a low cost of legislative compliance. Effectively, swapping to aluminium allows food manufacturers to remain as competitive as they were with plastics.

In addition to this, aluminium is also suitable for use with most microwave ovens. While there are some issues with models designed prior to 1960, modern appliances can safely heat products in aluminium containers as long as food is handled sensibly by consumers.

Biopolymers

While aluminium and glass are effective alternatives, some manufacturers will still require the malleability of plastics for their packaging. Materials scientists have been actively developing biopolymer alternatives to serve as sustainable and safely biodegradable plastics.

Most of these originate in by-products of other industries. Liquid wood is derived from lignin, a waste product created in paper processing, while other bioplastics are known to use casein from dairy production or keratin derived from chicken feathers from poultry farms. By far, the most popular are plant-based polymers—typically from sugarcane or potato starch.

The latter produces a material known as polylactic acid (PLA), which has many of the same properties as plastic but degrades far faster when exposed to nature, sometimes in as little as six months. Since the starch replaces the petroleum in the PLA, it produces less harmful chemicals during degradation.

The launch of a plastic-free aisle reflects a wider consumer appetite to reduce the footprint and environmental impact of their food. For future competitiveness, food and beverage manufacturers should consider the same things.

 

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