Optimising food packaging; a tried and tested view. By A.J. Gruber

Brands and retailers are increasingly aiming to improve sustainability and use less material. This matters to the public and will undoubtedly generate more headlines this year, as the Government presses ahead with its consultation on a plastic packaging tax.

But how do companies make packaging more sustainable? The substance behind the headlines is often missing. Making changes to food packaging is a complex task, with numerous factors to consider. How will changes affect labelling? Will changes impact the packaging’s role in driving sales? Will changes affect product shelf life?

Although all of these factors are important, they’re only just scratching the surface. Companies looking to improve sustainability need to consider the whole packaging and supply chain life-cycle. There are many areas where packaging performance can deliver sustainability benefits. Testing is key to determining such benefits, and while the food packaging testing market is fast growing, it still has potential for evolution.

A growing market
A recent report – The Global Food Packaging Testing Market – shows this market as growing 11.5 per cent CAGR until 2023. Increasing industrial output, growing imports and exports, heightened consumer consumption and capital investment over the last decade are all driving growth.

Testing is fundamental to successfully moving a higher volume of food and more varied food products in an increasingly international marketplace. Effective packaging tests in certified laboratories enable companies to simulate the variables and hazards of the food supply chain in a controlled environment. The dynamics of ‘real world’ distribution can be screened to determine the most appropriate packaging design and material. For example, internationalism means foods are increasingly exposed to varying climates during the supply chain and several different modes of transportation.

Therefore, packaging needs to offer optimal temperature control, while also mitigating against the impact of a range of vibrations during road, rail, shipping or air distribution. This performance helps protect against damage and maintain food safety, and also helps preserve freshness and quality.

It may also be the case that testing needs to challenge the integrity of the packaging’s ability to retain liquids or stop exposure to moisture and oxygen. Successfully determining such requirements in a controlled environment can avoid costly amounts of waste, risks to public health and lasting reputational damage as the packaging performs its role in the supply chain.

However, looking beyond supply chain dynamics, it is consumer trends that are now having the greatest impact on food packaging testing. And there are three trends in particular, which will see the testing market continue to grow as companies invest in packaging research and development.

The first trend is the volume of material used to package food products. This affects all three types of packaging including primary packaging – the element that actually contains the food, as well as secondary, which is the retail packaging, and finally, tertiary, the packaging used during distribution.

Consumers are more questioning of packaging. Rising commodity prices and supply chain costs have meant many manufacturers have had to reduce the size and weight of food products. This has prompted consumers to consider whether the dimensions of packaging have changed accordingly, with many becoming increasingly cynical of packaging that hasn’t changed size, or which makes a food product appear larger than it is. As well as feeling misled, they’re antagonised by what they consider wasted resources and question just how efficient packaging is.

This focus on efficiency and effectiveness extends to tertiary packaging. Growing food ecommerce means more consumers are being exposed to distribution packaging, which they have to recycle or dispose of. Because of this, they’re thinking about the volume used and just how necessary it is. It’s not uncommon to find people voicing concerns on social media about over-packaging used during distribution, which can negatively affect brand reputations and sales.

Food packaging testing is adapting to meet the challenge of reducing packaging volumes, while maintaining protection and preservation qualities.

Faster food
Previously, convenience has been more associated with primary and secondary packaging, with focus placed on aspects like easy-opening. It is now a trend influencing developments in tertiary packaging.

The emergence of retail behemoth Amazon in the UK food market in particular, is meeting and fueling demand for food being delivered quicker and within shorter time periods. At the same time, the repertoire of foods being delivered is expanding, with consumers now comfortable to click for delivery of chilled and delicate foods. The challenge for manufacturers and retailers is intensified, as consumers expect immediacy along with low or no-cost delivery.

Companies need to be leaner, which can lead to different types of food being packaged together during distribution as more goods are moved at shorter notice. The products will be either packed together in their individual retail packaging or with some dunnage such as air cushions to block and brace to stop items moving about and being damaged during transit.

The distribution (tertiary) packaging not only needs to help protect the food, it also needs to limit damage to the retail (secondary) packaging. Consumers don’t want or trust food products where the packaging isn’t in perfect condition. In addition to replicating these challenges, food packaging testing is adapting to account for errors caused by fast processing such as packages being dropped or heightened vibrations from faster moving vehicles.

Sustainable supply chains
Sustainability is already a hot topic. Where we’re likely so see changes in this trend is growing emphasis placed on packaging design. There’s growing awareness that design can yield sustainability benefits throughout the packaging life-cycle. For example, optimisations in design can reduce the volume of the material used, minimise waste incurred by food damage and enable more efficient packaging of foods, meaning more product can be moved per square metre during transit and carbon emissions reduced.

Design presents one of the biggest opportunities for evolutions in food packaging testing. There’s currently no single global standard for responsible packaging design. If such a step was taken, sustainability would be better considered at the start of packaging development. This would mean testing more effectively analyses and optimises environmental impact in context of supply chain hazards, business objectives and consumer demands.

A.J. Gruber is president of the International Safe Transit Association. The not-for-profit association helps empower organisations and their people to minimise product damage throughout distribution and optimise resource usage through effective package design. Worldwide, ISTA is the most trusted, knowledgeable and respected authority in predictive package-performance testing helping its members develop more effective packaging.