Choosing sustainable packaging materials will determine future bottom-line of food packers and grocery chains.
The key to successful packaging is to select the package material and design that best satisfy competing needs with regard to product characteristics, marketing considerations (including distribution needs and consumer needs), environmental and waste management issues, and cost. Balancing so many factors is difficult and also requires a different analysis for each product.
Factors to be considered include the properties of the packaging material, the type of food to be packaged, possible food/package interactions, the intended market for the product, and the desired product shelf life. Other factors include environmental conditions during storage and distribution, product end-use, eventual package disposal, and costs related to the package throughout the production and distribution process.
Ideally, sustainable food packaging would consist of materials that maintain the quality and safety of the food over time; are attractive, convenient, and easy to use while conveying all the desired information; are made from renewable resources, thereby generating no waste for disposal; and are inexpensive. Rarely, if ever, do today’s food packages meet these lofty goals. Creating a food package is as much art as science, trying to achieve the best overall result without falling below acceptable standards in any single category.
Attempts to balance competing needs can sometimes be addressed by mixing packaging materials— such as combining different plastics through coextrusion or lamination—or by laminating plastics with foil or paper. Plain paper is not used to protect foods for long periods of time because it has poor barrier properties and is not heat sealable. When used as primary packaging (i.e., in contact with food), paper is almost always treated, coated, laminated, or impregnated with materials such as waxes, resins, or lacquers to improve functional and protective properties. In contrast, paperboard is seldom used for direct food contact, even though it is thicker than paper.
Ultimately, the consumer plays a significant role in food packaging design. Consumer desires drive product sales, and the package is a significant sales tool. Although a Styrofoam tray might be the best material for packing corn or eggplant for supermarkets, sales will be affected if competitors continue to use Styrofoam to meet the consumer desire for Eco-friendly compostable tray.
Minimizing Environmental Impact
The impact of packaging waste on the environment can be minimized by prudently selecting materials, following consumer trends and industry guidelines, and reviewing expectations of packaging in terms of environmental impact. Still, the primary purpose of food packaging must continue to be maintaining the safety, wholesomeness, and quality of food. Knowledgeable efforts by industry, government, and consumers will promote continued improvement, and an understanding of the functional characteristics of packaging will prevent much of the well‑intentioned but ill‑advised solutions that do not adequately account for both pre- and post-consumer packaging factors. New materials, combinations, and technologies will allow the move from cradle-to-grave to cradle-to-cradle by eliminating negative environmental impact altogether.
To maintain a sustainable society, food packers must rethink long term and convenience expectations as well as their material choice and energy usage to interact more intelligently with the world and protect the planet.