Go without plastic: Discover the world of sustainable food packaging

  Going Plastic-Free: Exploring the World of Sustainable Food Packaging

By Robert Glass, Global Food & Beverage Communications Manager, ABB

According to the news that a Dutch supermarket has opened the world's first plastic-free food area the alternatives to plastic packaging for food.

While intensive discussions have been conducted on the environmental aspects of food production and packaging over the last 20 years, these discussions have often focused on carbon emissions and energy use of food crops. Since 2016, however, the world has become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of plastics.

The Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza recently opened the first plastic-free walk in the world in one of its shops in Amsterdam. This wave is pervading the food packaging industry and environmental campaign groups are calling for more supermarkets to follow. Sian Sutherland, co-founder of such a group, A Plastic Planet, said, "For decades, buyers have been sold the lie that we can not live without food and drink." A plastic-free walk eliminates all that. "

the glove is thrown, and in the coming months and years more supermarkets are likely to follow the plastic-free trend. Food manufacturers will need to rethink their food packaging materials to maximize their product's market penetration in the coming years.

Luckily for food manufacturers, this will not change their existing processes too much, since it's just the material that's changing – eventually a nut processing plant that exchanges plastic packaging for biopolymer alternatives. You will not find that their packaging and palletizing robots handle the product because the material has changed.

However, switching to sustainable packaging is not quite as easy as it sounds: the problem with plastics is not new. In the material industry, there are different alternatives. From chicken feathers to liquid wood, there are numerous experimental biodegradable alternatives to plastic, but which will we most often see in the next few years?

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Glass

Glass has been a staple in the bottling industry for years, but plastic bottles have gained popularity in recent decades. While the price difference was initially the main driver for many manufacturers considering switching to plastics, it is likely that the industry will shift to glass over the next few years.

Glass is beneficial because it is endlessly recyclable, recycled and recovered without loss of quality or purity. This is in sharp contrast to plastics, where the material fibers shorten with repeated recycling and become ineffective and unusable.

Glass bottles also have an element of consumer attractiveness. When the global beverage brand Coca Cola returned its glass bottles in 2014, sales increased.

Aluminum

According to the Labor Force Survey, one third of European households have only one resident. This is also not specific to the European nations; The US has experienced an increase in single-person households since the 1920s. As a result, single-serving portions and ready-to-serve meals are becoming increasingly popular, with an increasing number of microwaveable packages.

As a replacement for these plastic trays, food manufacturers can rely on aluminum instead. Like glass, aluminum is infinitely recyclable and its sustainability means it can meet regulatory compliance at a low cost. By replacing aluminum, food manufacturers can remain competitive as with plastics

In addition, aluminum is also suitable for most microwave ovens. While there are some problems with models designed before 1960, modern appliances can safely heat products in aluminum containers as long as the food is reasonably handled by consumers. The aluminum container manufacturer ADVANTA contains on its website a useful guide for microwave aluminum.

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Biopolymers

Although aluminum and glass are effective alternatives, some manufacturers will still demand the ductility of plastics for their packaging. For this reason, materials scientists have actively developed biopolymer alternatives that can serve as sustainable and safe biodegradable plastics.

Most of them are from byproducts of other industries. Liquid wood is derived from lignin, a by-product of paper processing, while other bioplastics are known to use casein from milk production or keratin from chicken feathers from poultry farms. However, most common are plant-based polymers, typically sugar cane or potato starch.

The latter produces a material known as polylactic acid (PLA) that has many of the same properties as plastic, but degrades much faster on exposure in nature, sometimes in just six months. As the starch replaces the kerosene in the PLA, it produces less harmful chemicals during mining.

The introduction of a plastic-free corridor reflects a broader consumer appetite to reduce the footprint and environmental impact of their food. To stay competitive in the future, food and beverage manufacturers should consider the same things.

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