Bio-packaging of food – How does it contribute to saving the world?

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What are your connotations of food packaging? A means of safeguarding the passage of food through the manufacturing and transport processes and an opportunity to reduce society’s dependence on fossil fuels, or unnecessary packaging and great heaps of waste?

A confectionary package is a classic example of wastefulness. Confections are set individually and sparsely in indentations of a plastic tray. After this, a protective plate produced from corrugated board, either plastic or cardboard, is placed on top of this tray. The plastic tray and protective plate are placed in a carton, and, to top it off, this whole thing is wrapped in cellophane or clear plastic film. Wasteful packaging? Most certainly. Materials produced from fossil fuels? Also true.

The basic function of packaging is artless and thus easily forgotten. The vitally important role of a package is to protect the food while it is transported from producer to consumer. The first priority of packaging is to protect food from contamination, mechanical impact and other environmental effects throughout the production, processing, transportation stages and trading all the way to the consumer’s home. Packaging provides information on the content and use of food. It also significantly extends shelf-life by preventing the access of microbes or reducing the amount of oxygen or moisture that is able to penetrate the food in question.

Sufficient but not excessive environmentally friendly packaging that preserves resources and nature is not a novel idea. Nor are efforts to rationalise packaging. Since 1970, the humble yoghurt container has lost 50 per cent of its weight. Even the aluminium tin has become 20 per cent lighter.[1] The confectionary box could be simplified by, for instance, leaving out the separate protective plate and replacing the plastic tray with a carton grate.

Towards bio-packaging

Bio-packaging is a short step away from environmentally friendly packaging. Bio-packaging is an elemental part of the transition to the so-called bio-economy. In a bio-economy, the world’s operations are based entirely on renewable biological resources, meaning that food, animal feed, energy and materials are produced by using biomass and biological processes. After the Industrial Revolution, the bio-economy is a step back towards nature and renewable material sources, yet it is powered by new technology.

The largest group of bio-packages comprises good old cartons and corrugated boxes and other fibre-based food packaging products such as paper bags, moulded pulp products (e.g. egg cartons) and textile bags. Fibre-based packaging entails low carbon dioxide emissions, since bioenergy and biomass such as recycled fibre and wood are used in their manufacture and the packages are recyclable. As much as 99 per cent of all cardboard and corrugated materials collected in Finland are recycled[2]. Best of all, fibre-based materials are very strong and tough in comparison to their density.

From plastic to bioplastic

Plastic is used a lot for food packaging due to its excellent properties. Plastics are tough, light, relatively impenetrable and transparent. Traditionally, plastics are manufactured by synthesis of petrochemicals. Oil-based plastic is so durable that, in practical terms, it does not degrade in nature; it just gets cut into smaller pieces, which accumulate in the oceans, in the stomachs of fish and birds, and in landfills. Accordingly, plastic food packaging has an image problem among consumers.

Nature also produces polymers that can be processed into plastics. These are called bioplastics. Basically, all biological macro-molecules are suitable for producing bioplastics, but they are still most commonly produced from starch, sugars and cellulose. Bioplastic comprises only one per cent[3] of all the manufactured plastic, but its share is rapidly increasing. Well-known examples include the bioPET bottles by Coca Cola and Pepsi, and milk-cartons’ bioplastic tops, manufactured from a sugar cane-based material. Depending on the manufacturing technology, bioplastics can differ a great deal, somewhat or not at all from traditional plastics. The greatest challenges are related to arranging the recycling of bioplastics alongside traditional plastics. VTT is currently developing a manufacturing process for expanded polystyrene using PLA bioplastic (polylactide).

The challenges of the bio-economy, and strides forward

An orange has the ideal nature-made packaging: its peel. The peel is so tough that it allows the orange to be transported across great distances without damage or any significant need to discard damaged fruit. Using the same logic, a package can be grown near to a food’s production site. This is one of the key ideas of bio-packaging. In the future, the side and waste streams from agriculture and forestry can be processed into packaging near to food production and processing sites, which will allow long-distance transports to be avoided, while providing local employment and enabling the utilisation of material streams.

VTT is about to start an international project on this theme commissioned by the Food and agriculture organization of the UN (FAO). The idea is to analyse food waste, packaging material and by-product streams of a chosen food supply chain, and formulate solutions for ‘greening’ the chain through bio-packaging materials and operations. Also national projects with several partners are being planned.

The greatest challenge to a bio-economy using biomass is that so-called black carbon cannot be replaced to the same extent with green carbon. Environmental tolerance, biodiversity and the sheer amount of biomass will not allow for attempts to replace consumption at the current level with biomass-based energy and materials. Nature does not produce all the materials desired or needed by humankind in the required amounts – or even at all. For this reason, technical methods are being developed so as to create synthetic organisms that can handle this production on an industrial scale. This rising industry is called synthetic biology, and it continues the traditions of genetic engineering and biotechnology. However, synthetic biology does not resolve the basic issue, which is a need that is too great compared to the possibilities. Biomass will not be enough to cover everything unless consumption is reduced.

In order to achieve a genuinely sustainable bioeconomy, our inevitable future prospects include more localised lives, reduced consumption, and a more efficient use of resources in a number of ways. In the future, renewable resources such as biomass will be used more efficiently, but unrestricted use is not a possibility. The consumer is, therefore, well within her rights in demanding that the confectionary package should be simpler.

Sara Paunonen

Senior Scientist

Read Sara Paunonen’s previous blog post: Food waste is a sheer waste of resources


Sources:

[1] Pardos Marketing, Market trends and developments in packaging, EMAP, Brussels, 2001.

[2] The Environmental Register of Packaging PYR Ltd, Recycling statistics for packaging, 2012.

[3] The European Bioplastics, http://en.european-bioplastics.org/

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