There are several reasons why food manufacturers need to be on the front foot when it comes to considering the best material for their packaging. Ajeeth Enjeti, general manager of European business unit – food at metal packaging company Trivium, tells us more.
Firstly, there is the ongoing problem of food waste. In the EU, nearly 57 million tonnes of food waste – that’s 127kg per person – are generated annually, with a market value estimated at €130 billion. This is a result of food being lost by retailers due to limited product shelf lives, by consumers due to suboptimal meal planning (eg. excess buying) and due to poor in-home storage. Packaging that can preserve food and give it a longer shelf life has a role to play in bringing this figure down.
Similarly, packaging needs to preserve food for the purposes of quality and safety. Packaging that provides a barrier that protects food contents from sunlight and oxygen – the two primary drivers of premature quality degradation in food – can ensure that products maintain the highest quality standards.
At the same time, the drive to reduce the use of single-use plastic – and to find the best alternatives – continues. The UK, for example, has begun a legally binding international treaty involving businesses and environmental groups, aiming to end plastic pollution by 2040. If countries do not take drastic action to end plastic pollution, there could be up to a threefold increase in the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean between 2016 and 2040.
Convenience food’s contribution to packaging waste
Convenience food – in its many forms – represents a significant opportunity to reduce packaging waste of all kinds. If you go to any convenience food section in a supermarket, you’ll see rows and rows of food in plastic packaging; from dairy products such as yogurts to ready-made sauces and spreads to drinks and frozen oven-ready meals.
Revenue in the European convenience food segment amounted to €81.67 billion in 2022. The volume of convenience food is expected to amount to 14,308.8 million kilograms by 2027. So, while it’s no surprise that convenience foods contribute significantly to packaging waste, the numbers are shocking nevertheless. In one study, a team of scientists found that eight out of ten of the 12 million pieces of litter analysed from around rivers, oceans, shorelines and the seafloor were made of plastic. Of those, 44% of the plastic litter is related to convenience food and drinks, including single-use bottles, food containers and wrappers.
Finding the best alternatives to unsustainable packaging
As the Protect, Promote, Preserve whitepaper explains, choosing the right packaging is a decision that brands will often dedicate considerable time to.
Selecting the right type of packaging is important for food products, which require exceptional protection to reduce the risk of damage and food waste during storage, handling and consumption. When it comes to convenience foods, packaging takes on even greater significance and added functionality. These products are designed to be eaten on the go, and the packaging has to be made for ease of consumption, often through customised design for that specific product – easy-to-open packages that are made to minimise spillage, for example. For ready-to-cook meals, visually appealing containers that can be used as serving dishes draw in customers that want a quick but attractive packaging solution that minimises effort from preparation to serving, consumption and clearing up.
With all of these packaging ‘asks’ in mind, many brands are turning to metal for its durability, sustainability, ability to preserve the contents it contains, and for its versatility. While traditionally used for long-life canned goods, brands are realising that metal can be adapted for all kinds of foods in all kinds of forms, including serving trays and bowls for convenience meals and containers for yogurt as well as ready-made sauces and spreads.
Metal offers a circularity that plastic and multi-layer substrates cannot compete with because they cannot be infinitely recycled, and – in the case of substrates – their complexity makes the recycling process difficult. In addition, brands are realising that metal packaging can be an extremely effective brand tool. Brands can use the entire surface area and make use of advanced graphics and prominent colours on their cans and bottles without sacrificing packaging functionality and/or recyclability. Metal printing also does not compromise product safety due to the impermeability of metal and because inks used for food cans are fully compliant with strict food safety regulations.
At the same time as the convenience food sector is growing, governments are continuing their crackdown on plastic packaging for foods where there are better alternatives.
For example, the global plastic treaty is a resolution now being considered by the United Nations and is widely agreed to be a key moment in sustainability regulation. It is designed to reduce the impact of plastics on the environment by taking a circular economy approach to plastic design, manufacturing, use and disposal.
A sustainable solution
As well as durability, the sustainability of packaging is now a key consideration for brands. The 2022 Buying Green Report shows that 68% of consumers have chosen a product in the last six months based on its sustainability and credentials, and 57% of consumers are “less likely” to buy products placed in harmful packaging.
Metal’s true circularity gives it a unique role in helping to protect the planet for generations to come. Given the prevalence of convenience foods in European supermarkets, and consumers’ reliance on them, there is potential for this sector to make a significant contribution to packaging circularity by embracing a sustainable alternative.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2024