Vacuum Sealed And Packed—Innovating For A Waste-Free Future

Monday, December 24th, 2018

By Onat Bayraktar, Vice President, Food Care Asia, Sealed Air

It’s estimated that 33 percent of all fresh food produced is never eaten. This is equivalent to 1.3 billion tonnes, and contributes to 8 percent of global CO2 emissions. Food production poses a huge strain on resources given the large amounts of land needed to grow, feed and house livestock, water needed to keep livestock alive, and the emissions from transporting produce across vast distances, among many other reasons.

Coupled with the fact that food waste is the largest contributor to landfills, reducing food waste is imperative to make sure we maximise our use of limited resources, especially if you consider that the world population will reach nearly 10 billion by 2050.


Shifting Food Production

Over the last few decades, almost every aspect of food production has shifted, with the effects of climate change not only impacting crop production, but also meat production, fisheries and other fundamental areas of our food supply. Amongst these changes and in the bid to establish a safe, sustainable and nutritious food supply chain, new challenges and needs are arising.

Today’s food processor is concerned about operational efficiency and keeping production costs in check; while the retailer or food service provider focuses on finding solutions to reduce waste that lead to profit loss; and finally, the end-consumer seeks out fresh, safe and good quality food that is also convenient to store, open and cook. One common factor that is increasingly on everyone’s mind is sustainability – whether it is presenting or selecting environmentally-friendly options, or reducing food waste and packaging waste.


Responsible Essential Packaging

From my position within the food packaging industry, I’m interested in areas where food packaging can help address these increasing challenges. An emerging concept is that of ‘responsible essential packaging’, which refers to packaging that not only keeps food fresh for longer, but is also sustainable and promotes a circular economy.

One of the emerging trends I am noticing is the move from modified atmosphere packaging to vacuum skin packaging (VSP) for meat and seafood products. Part of its growth in Asia could be attributed to its value at point-of-sale, where an increasingly affluent middle class are drawn to its differentiated, high-quality and premium look. VSP works by creating a skin-tight fit around the product, preserving product integrity by deterring microbial growth and preventing dehydration and oxidation of fats, vitamins and flavours.

Behind-the scene however, we’re starting to produce VSPs that reduce the environmental impact for processors and retailers. VSPs are now able to be packed 40 percent faster and use 40 percent less material than other tray skin offerings—reaching speeds of up to 100 packages per minute, and delivering designs that eliminate film scrap and waste costs. This helps processors and retailers find big advantages in operational efficiencies while reducing environmental footprint.


A Sustainable Food Supply Chain

An important merit of VSP is its extended freshness, which adds to merchandising opportunities but more importantly, helps to reduce food waste. Fresh foods start decaying when it comes into contact with air. By sealing the product using vacuum, we’re effectively creating a barrier between food and the outside world. Some of the most advanced vacuum skins can easily keep food products fresh for consumption by almost three times—extending its life from 10 to 28 days—compared to conventional modified atmosphere packaging. Extending freshness ultimately means we are able to reduce the chances of food going to waste.

These advantages also bring new possibilities for the supply chain: retailers are able to extend their networks to a larger geographical network as fresh foods are able to travel further. It also brings about more flexibility in inventory management.

VSPs are also space efficient during both distribution and storage. New designs have seen the use of special cardboards in place of a tray to present the product, with the cardboard being 100 percent recyclable. This helps save 80 percent more space compared to conventional packaging, which also means less trucks and more effective utilisation of warehousing.

Further improvements in vacuum skin technologies have also seen breakthroughs in design that allow much less materials to be used during the packaging process. Processors are now able to virtually eliminate waste during packaging by wholly matching the skin of packaging films to tray sizes. This means zero percent of excess packaging material going into landfills.

Kerchin, a leading food manufacturer in China is a recent example of a company that benefited from investing in VSP technology. With the country experiencing a boom in new retail formats and increasingly affluent shoppers, Kerchin were interested to enhance the presentation of its beef products. With the lengthier preservation of freshness and quality between plants and target markets, Kerchin was also able to realise supply chain efficiencies through a centralised production base for nation-wide supply instead of multiple factories.

With the United Nations projecting the world population to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, making good, efficient use of resources require an increasing collaboration from the industry, to the government and the consumer. Any bit of efficiencies found along the supply chain can lead to millions of dollars in savings and huge sustainable outcomes, and advancements in packaging is that step in the right direction. From efficiencies to sustainability, these innovations are giving processors and retailers a growing list of compelling arguments of why technologies such as VSP is worth the investment.