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The immediate future presents some challenges for packaging which will be essential, both in physical stores as well as in the e-commerce channel. We analyse the strength of packaging in the food sector and the changes and trends in the face of an increasingly safety conscious and demanding consumer.

Purchasing and consumption habits have changed since the Covid outbreak and everything points to the fact that some of these changes will be here to stay. The agri-food sector has had to adapt on the fly to a situation which new to us all; and according to a report recently presented by Ainia, a centre specialising in technology and innovation for the development of the food sector, consumer perception of food product manufacturers has been positive during this period, with the values of solidarity, intelligence and empathy being highlighted as the most important attributes, although consumers would have liked to have seen greater degree of transparency from these companies. Additionally, 84% of the 3,000 consumers consulted believe that innovation in food companies will be maintained and will even increase.

Health and safety, the most repeated mantras

In view of this highly positive perception, the packaging industry has played a key role in guaranteeing two major issues in this new normal: safety and hygiene, concepts that have generated changes in the average shopping basket. Faster, higher volume purchases concentrated into one shopping trip per week have been recorded, more ready meals have been purchased and, as far as packaging is concerned, the purchase of packaged and single-portion products has increased.

Carlos Enguix, head of the Packaging Technologies department in Ainia, considers that “the safety and hygiene measures in packaging currently available to the agro-food industry are a priori and, according to the studies carried out to date, they are adequate“. For the next few months, the expert points out the possibility of adapting bulk sales to the new context, as well as a progressive decrease in the use of single-portion packaging, whilst always focusing on guaranteeing food safety. Similarly, studies show that the viability of Covid-19 on different types of materials varies, ranging from a few hours to three days, even though there is no evidence of any case of contagion from the packaging. Packaging has become the guarantor of product and food safety.

The changes experienced in the last three months have also had a direct impact on packing and packaging manufacturers for the food sector. Some of them have adapted their production to new orders from their customers, while others have even allocated part of their production to the manufacture of medical supplies. Enplater, a flexible packaging manufacturer, has collaborated with Tecnomolde to supply masks for hospitals, and its flexible film has been used to make protective screens. As for the company’s regular customers and projects, its marketing director, Albert Valldeperes, states: “We are maintaining last year’s levels because our main supply sector is the food industry, however we remain cautious because we could be faced with a deep economic and social crisis which could also affect us in the extent that consumers may lower their quality threshold in favour of cost“.

Health and safety measures have been constant, not only in terms of packaging but also throughout the value chain. This is corroborated by Valldeperes: “The first thing we put in place were protocols to minimise the risk of contagion between our workers and visitors. Each week an external company fumigates the facilities, the staff’s temperature is taken, we have masks, gel and disinfectant wipes and the administrative staff have been divided into two shifts to work from home and at the office on a rotating basis“. In terms of ensuring the supply of some of these raw materials, they have increased the stock capacity of the film with the installation of tents.

Foto cedida por Enplater
Image courtesy of Enplater

Sustainability, a priority for all

Some of the measures that have been taken as a result of this crisis may lead to a review or a slowdown in some of the trends the European Strategy for the Circular Economy had been generating, but this strategy will continue to be pursued. This is assured by Carlos Enguix, , who stresses the need to guarantee that products reach consumers in the right conditions, with their nutritional quality, while at the same time adapting to a circular economy. “Sustainability involves attaining a balance between economic and environmental aspects and social benefits and therefore packaging solutions will be sustainable if they are designed to be optimal in the search for this balance; taking into account their entire life cycle, from the production of raw materials to the management of packaging waste“, concludes the Ainia spokesperson.

Foto cedida por Ainia
Image courtesy of Ainia

In line with this, the expert assures that work must be done so that packaging can be recycled in a cost efficient way, recycling percentages are being increasingly used, compostable packaging can be developed at an appropriate cost and provide an adequate level of performance with an effective reduction in the quantities of materials used can be achieved. All this, without reducing the level of safety, quality and functionalities offered to consumers and without significant variations in costs.

Another aspect to consider when choosing a package or packaging system is the reduction of food waste. It is important to not forget that food waste means a loss of all the expenses involved in the production of that food product, its packaging, transport and management, with all the associated environmental impacts.

A trend that has also been observed during these last three months has been the increase of e-commerce, and although the percentage of online purchases of food products is still reduced in relative terms, it has experienced significant growth. Consequently, the use of packaging materials for this distribution system has increased, and this new scenario also poses challenges to ensure both sustainable practices and a greater volume of packaging and waste generated in households.

From Enplater, Valldeperes reinforces the importance of continuing to focus on sustainability. “Our customers’ main concern is the environment, so we continue to increase the demand for monomaterial films, and in the event they have to be changed, the most important thing is that they maintain the same machinability and conservation properties of the options they previously used“.

New times, new materials?

In a situation such as the current one, digitalisation is playing an especially important role, enabling processes to be automated, improving the traceability and exchange of information throughout the production supply chain and distribution. All this results in greater efficiency, safety and process optimisation, while contributing to the generation of sustainable solutions with an integral vision.

At Ainia they are working on alternative or complementary materials to petroleum-based plastics, ranging from bio-based and compostable solutions to ones that combine cardboard and compostable or recyclable plastic. All the new solutions that emerge must comply with the European Strategy for the Circular Economy guidelines, and all companies must be aligned with this requirement, regardless of the consequences generated by the Covid outbreak.

In this regard, Carlos Enguix believes that plastics are necessary for many of the applications in food packaging, to guarantee hygiene and safety and to offer consumers functionality in use. “The search for sustainability has to come from finding the most suitable solution for each case based on the requirements of the product, risks of deterioration, its useful life, distribution system and method of preparation. We have to make an eco-design of the most suitable packaging solution, taking this into account from the conception of the packaging through to waste management“.

The expert assures that there are lots of packages that do not have an effective recycling system, and that this is going to be one of the biggest challenges and a fact that is going to propel the search for new materials or the combination of existing ones in the packaging itself, in order to obtain a reduction of the cost and the environmental impact.

Foto cedida por Ainia
Image courtesy of Ainia

As an example, Enguix explains that they have recently developed an in-line thermoformable tray in MAP, vacuum packing, or skin packaging processes with a cardboard structure that can be printed on, and a thin inner plastic film to provide a barrier against gases and humidity and allow the packaging to be sealed. It consists of 90-95% cardboard and 5-10% plastic which can be separated for recycling. It is the only one on the market made from flat cardboard with a flat edge for sealing, without joins or different thicknesses, thereby guaranteeing its seal integrity, and also allowing packs of several packages or multi-cavity packages to be made for cases such as ready meals with sauces, salads with toppings, etc. The formats and designs are varied, from meat trays, and ready meals to dessert tubs and pizza packaging.

In addition to the research and development of new materials, and bearing in mind a society which is increasingly more informed and demanding with regards what it consumes, labelling systems are also going to have to evolve in order to offer information that will take on more and more importance, such as the origin of the product, the impact of the product’s packaging on the environment, its traceability etc., providing such information in an intelligible way, as the consumer doesn’t need to know the difference between a compostable plastic and a plastic which has come from oil.

The food safety and hygiene standards that previously existed have made it easier to adapt to this new normality, but the effort will lie, in part, in achieving a balance between the need to develop new sustainable materials that meet the European requirements in terms of the Circular Economy, to encourage reuse and recycling without renouncing maximum food safety, and all at competitive costs for the manufacturers, brands and the consumers themselves. Hispack will follow the sector closely and bring together the best solutions for the challenges we face ahead.

Cristina Benavides, Hispack contributor