Food packaging for sausage and meat products must meet a wide range of requirements. Product protection and shelf life are paramount. Changing consumer behavior has contributed to a focus on sustainable products in packaging as well. Additional pressure is exerted by stricter legal requirements. Innovations are therefore aimed at reducing material use, recyclability, and packaging made from renewable raw materials. These can be seen at IFFA from May 14 to 19, 2022, in Frankfurt.
Not only in the packaging sector, but especially there, the topic of sustainability is at the forefront of consumers’ minds. A study conducted by consumer research company Nielsen in 2020 showed that 71 percent of German consumers prefer packaging that uses little material. A similar conclusion was reached in a November 2021 study by packaging manufacturer Amcor, which surveyed 12,000 consumers from the U.S., U.K., Germany, Australia, China, and Brazil. Seventy-six percent said they wanted to recycle more, and that recyclability was the most important sustainability feature for packaging. The conclusion: “Manufacturers who reduce packaging or make it recyclable can score points with customers,” according to Nielsen market researchers.
The legal basis for dealing with transport and sales packaging in the EU is the European Packaging Directive, combined with the European Commission’s Plastics Strategy. The basic idea behind the Packaging Directive is the circular economy. Waste should be reused or recycled if it cannot be avoided. According to the Plastics Strategy, all plastic packaging placed on the market in the EU should be recyclable or reusable by 2030. The requirements from Brussels are implemented in national law by the German Packaging Act. According to this, the recycling quotas for all packaging materials will be tightened step by step until 2030. As far as plastic is concerned, half of the material used must be recyclable by 2025. A registration requirement is intended to prevent environmentally harmful packaging from entering the German market in the first place.
Requirements for the packaging of the future
Driven by consumer expectations and legal requirements, manufacturers, often in conjunction with research institutes and even competitors, are working flat out on forward-looking packaging for meat, sausage, & co. It should be sustainable and resource-saving, generate less waste, and, at the same time, meet the highest standards in terms of safety, durability, and quality. Ideally, this packaging is recyclable or biodegradable and can be fed into a closed material cycle.
Chemical plastic recycling
Plastic films, consisting of several layers and different types of material, are the most common food packaging. With their good barrier properties, they protect against heat, moisture and oxygen – on the one hand. On the other hand, they damage the environment, have a poor CO₂ balance and are difficult or impossible to recycle, at least mechanically. Especially since, according to the EU directive, it must be ensured that no undesirable substances are contained in the recyclates. Chemical recycling offers a solution. In this process, the used plastics are converted into raw materials such as pyrolysis oil or synthesis gas. The recovered materials can then be used again to produce films.
As an alternative to multilayer composites, research and industry are developing mono-material packaging. According to the Packaging Act, they are allowed to have a maximum foreign material content of five percent. BarriFlex and CIRCULAR FoodPack are corresponding projects of the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging (IVV). Mono-materials consist of pure polyolefins (PP, PE, EVOH), have just as good a protective function as multilayer films, but are easier to sort and recycle. To achieve a barrier effect against oxygen and water vapor, nanoparticles are integrated into selected coatings and adhesives. The disadvantage is that the barrier function diminishes with increasing humidity and temperature. The industry has already launched mono-material packaging on the market. One example is a polyethylene (PE) shrink bag for fresh and processed meat and poultry. It has a PA/EVOH (polyamide/ethylene vinyl alcohol copolymer) barrier layer, the percentage of which is less than five percent and therefore has no impact on recycling.
Also on the market is a barrier film, based on recycled PE and PA, which can be used to produce casings for numerous meat or alternative protein products. A thermoforming film made from PP (polypropylene) is also fully recyclable.
The easiest way to reduce the amount of plastic in packaging is through material savings. Tubular bag films are gaining ground as a replacement for classic tray packaging. They are up to ten times thinner and lighter than conventional MAP (Modified Atmosphere Packaging) trays and therefore save up to 70 percent plastic per packaging unit. A tubular bag weighing ten grams is enough to transport one kilogram of minced meat. The bag then simply ends up in the yellow bag. The mono-material polypropylene is fully recyclable. Another advantage compared to conventional MAP trays: tubular bags have a much smaller pack volume, but thanks to their protective atmosphere they can be stacked just as easily. As a result, this means significantly better utilization of loading spaces during truck transports and thus lower CO₂ emissions.
However, the innovative tubular bags do not spell the end for traditional tray packaging, which requires consumers to peel a film off the supporting cardboard. Behind the term “Eco Bowl” is a fully recyclable tray with modified atmosphere (MAP) based on corrugated board. The 85 percent reduction in plastic content compared to conventional plastic trays is limited to the skin and top film. Another model, “FoodTray,” consists of a cardboard tray made from renewable raw materials and two thin films made from recyclable plastic. The manufacturer thus reduces plastic consumption by about 80 percent, according to an IFFA press release.
A promising research approach is biobased, i.e., biodegradable packaging based on renewable raw materials. In the “Preserve” project, Fraunhofer is conducting researchon whey protein, which has similar barrier properties to EVOH or PVDC (polyvinylidene chloride) and is degradable in seawater. Experiments are also being conducted with sealable paper bags the barrier layers of which consist of proteins and waxes. Here, too, the proteins serve as an oxygen barrier layer, and the waxes as a water vapor barrier. The antimicrobial effect of the bio-based additives prevents the packaged meat from spoiling quickly. Sugar cane, algae, fungi, or lactic acid are other raw materials suitable for the development of biobased packaging. Corresponding packaging is already on the market. One example is “Bio-SamPak”, a compostable film made from renewable cellulose, the main component of plant cell walls.
In the quest for greater sustainability and environmental compatibility of packaging, quality and product protection must not be left out. One research trend in this regard is smart packaging, which actively takes care of the meat product, protects it and thus, also has a sustainable effect. Smart or “intelligent” packaging protects against light, regulates moisture development, keeps the temperature stable, absorbs unwanted ripening gases, and prevents germ infestation – to name just a few applications. Researchers at the Fraunhofer IVV are also working on applicable solutions in this area.
The development of sustainable innovative packaging and the corresponding machinery for its production or for packaging food go hand in hand. Packaging manufacturers often have the appropriate machines for processing environmentally friendly materials such as paper and thin films in their range at the same time. One of many examples is the “thermoformer” for producing the “FoodTray” packaging solution. This means that along with the next generation of environmentally friendly packaging the next generation of machinery is about to be launched on the market.
An overview of innovations in the field of packaging will be provided by exhibitors at IFFA – the leading international trade show of Technology for Meat and Alternative Proteins, from May 14 to 19, 2022. Of the total of around 900 exhibitors, more than 160 companies will present a comprehensive range of packaging machines and equipment as well as packaging materials and packaging aids.