Coconut fibre nano-particles, meat-skin, and edible silk coating: the wacky world of packaging innovation
A disproportionate amount of food losses occur after harvesting and before they reach the retail stage. The challenge is to create packaging or treatment solutions that are affordable and accessible for rural producers, helping them to prevent damage in postharvest transport and storage. This is crucial both to improve the sustainability of the food system, and to improve rural livelihoods. The more crops sold, the better the returns for farmers.
Advances in food packaging are extremely important for a sustainable food system. We rely on food packaging to extend shelf life and prevent losses. Changing the shape and structure of packaging can safeguard products from bruising during transport or handling and multi-layer cartons serve as comprehensive barriers to different spoiling agents, including light, oxygen and heat.
Packaging gets a bad rap, however: food-preserving solutions may have some unsustainable impacts. Most notable of the multiple trade-offs are between shelf-life extension and packaging volume. Truly sustainable food packaging must protect products in order to extend shelf life, while also decreasing the weight of packaging materials used without increasing the carbon footprint of the supply chain. This is what innovators are working towards today.
In an initial scan as part of Forum for the Future’s project Disrupting Food Logistics, we uncovered a few promising innovations. They include Mazzican, a milk transport bottle that reduces spillage and spoilage and can be stacked easily for transport, and a hexanal ‘smart delivery’ liner built with nano-particles derived from banana and coconut fibres. The latter is particularly interesting because it creates an alternative revenue stream for producers. Other innovations include the application of an existing technology for a new product category, such as waxing for roots, tubers and bananas in Uganda.
Sustainable food packaging is a fast-growing industry. In the near future, more governments are likely to adopt policies regarding Extended Producer Responsibility (ERP), which holds companies responsible for waste along the entire lifecycle of the product, including post-consumer waste. Japan is a clear leader in ERP, with countries like Chile, India and South Korea following close behind. India is working on legislation regarding ERP specifically for food packaging.
How the Circular Economy can help
Many companies are actively looking for ways to develop high-quality, durable sustainable packaging solutions for reuse, which is one way to address the trade-off between shelf life and material consumption. This is tricky. Logistics service providers and shippers alike understand the common issue of empty back haul, in which the volumes of goods that need to be moved from Point A to Point B are much greater than those that need to be shipped from Point B to Point A, resulting in an imbalance of demand for and distribution of shipping containers, pallets and crates.
While not a new company, CHEP has been a pioneer in reducing the volume and weight of intermediate packaging, as well as offering rental solutions. Blue Ocean Containers offers reduced volume packaging as well as supply chain operations analysis to reduce overall volumes of packaging across the supply chain.
Natural solutions to extend retail shelf-life
Consumers are increasingly preoccupied with chemicals and toxics in food packaging materials, and tend to favour more natural-looking materials, as well as less-packaging overall. While technologies are at varying stages of commercial development, we can envision a near future with food companies championing their efforts to create natural, sustainable food packaging to consumers.
In the United States, there is growing research around edible food coatings. One solution out of Tufts University uses silk fibroin, while another from the USDA uses milk proteins. It remains to be seen how the public will respond to these coatings and how they can be used affordably in practice. Other solutions include modified atmosphere packaging, grain-based polymers to substitute petroleum-based plastics, and a skin for meat, which reduces packaging volume by 30% to 50%.
Our goal is to have over 100 innovations on a public, digital map by the end of 2017, and we’ll need your help to ensure it is the best possible resource for food logistics innovations. If you think we’ve missed a crucial innovation and want to add to our list, please send us an email at email@example.com!
The Disrupting Food Logistics project included the creation of a Global Food Logistics Innovations Map, including the sourcing of 50+ innovations in food packaging, cold chain, ICT and supply chain design. Compiling the results of this process gave us some of the puzzle pieces to fill in a full picture of a future vision for sustainable food logistics, as well as an idea of the cutting-edge in these four categories. Through a series of Disrupting Food Logistics blogs, we will be sharing these insights with you. These blogs will later be compiled into a full report.