Smart packaging for prime products - Anuga FoodTec
Thursday 16 February 2012Future packaging will be expected to fulfil rigorous requirements
At present, food packaging tends to get judged in terms of three criteria: the environment, marketing and functionality. Packaging and packaging technology have been around for over 100 years now. Despite their continuous enhancement over this period, there is still a healthy flow of new developments and innovations. Top trends of the moment include smart packaging to protect the product, technology to conserve resources and the use of renewable materials.
Just over one-third of the food produced worldwide perishes before it ever reaches the consumer. In view of such statistics, it is easy to see what role packaging might play in conserving the planet's resources. One of the purposes of food packaging is to protect the contents against spoilage and damage, even under less than favourable storage and freight conditions. In the absence of packaging, lots of foodstuffs would perish much faster, thus limiting their transportability and shelf life. Yet the production of packaging consumes both energy and raw materials. This is one area where improvements in efficiency can be achieved. By boosting energy efficiency and cutting the use of packaging materials, companies such as Bosch Packaging are looking to lower food production costs and thereby reduce the burden on the environment. New approaches in this area include the use of aseptic packaging, a method that removes the requirement to heat the contents to a high temperature after packaging. This means not only a significant reduction in packaging materials, thus generating less waste, but also substantial energy savings of up to 70 percent compared with conventional packaging methods. Furthermore, as a result of this more gentle form of processing, foods conserve many more of their nutrients. Equally important, for foods packaged this way there is no need to maintain an unbroken cold chain reaching all the way from production to transport to the retail trade. That significantly reduces energy consumption.
Similar trends can be observed in the packaging of chilled products. Smart labelling is a prime example. This includes Bizerba's Time Temperature Indicator (TTI) system, which enhances the inconclusive "best before" date with an indication of a product's actual freshness based on its real conditions of storage and transportation. Such technology should significantly reduce the amount of food that gets thrown away simply on account of having exceeded its stipulated shelf life. At the same time, the technology provides conclusive evidence of product freshness as well as a record of any gaps in the cold chain, resulting from, for example, a faulty cooler unit in a refrigeration truck.
Supreme energy efficiency
According to a study by Frost & Sullivan, sales of electric motors to the European packaging industry totalled ¤184.4 million in 2010, a figure that is projected to rise to ¤272.6 million by 2017. In other words, there is a clear trend towards improving the energy efficiency of the drive systems used in packaging machines. When combined with the pneumatic technology that is standard in today's packaging systems, electric actuators offer a range of advantages. They are supremely efficient and do not rely on a costly source of compressed air for energy. In addition to their primary use - namely, for manoeuvring packages between different positions within a packaging machine - they therefore represent also an increasingly attractive option for performing simple movements between two end positions. In packaging machines that operate with very short cycle times and have to manoeuvre large and weighty packages, the electric motors required for this purpose are much smaller than comparable pneumatic cylinders. Accordingly, the use of electric actuators can reduce energy costs. Servomotors too, with their excellent operating characteristics, zero maintenance requirements and the high energy efficiency classes of the latest generation, also have much to offer in this field. In the meantime, increasingly rigorous legislation will exert pressure on the sector to evolve. This will likewise accelerate the trend towards the use of increasingly compact and dynamic drive systems in the packaging industry.
Saving energy and materials
There are many approaches, large and small, to saving energy and materials in the packaging industry. In combination, they bring about a significant reduction in the burden on the environment. In the 1980s, the accepted view was that packaging was undesirable and should be avoided as much as possible. Today, however, we recognize its vital role but know that it should be as economical and efficient as possible. An example of this is the development of ultrasonic welding, which reduces the energy needed to seal packaging, since it removes the need for preheating. This technique also enables the use of a thinner plastic film and uses a thinner weld seam than does conventional heat sealing. Both mean a reduction in the use of materials.
Similarly, in the stretch-blow moulding process used to produce PET bottles, considerable energy is consumed by heating the preforms. With a new, award-winning development, Krones has now demonstrated how decisive improvements can also be made to well-established packaging processes. Based on microwave heating technology, the new method not only significantly increases the energy efficiency and therefore sustainability of stretch-blow moulding but also makes the process faster, more flexible and more versatile. The system enables manufacturers to individually set and monitor the heating process for each PET blank. This makes it possible to offset any negative ambient factors and also to alter the proportion of recycled material in PET blanks. This in turn enables the production of multicoloured bottles, thereby creating new design options. Marketed under the name of FlexWave, the microwave technology requires as little as 50 percent of the energy consumed by a conventional infrared oven and therefore offers substantial cost benefits. In addition, it is enables much faster production cycles, since the extremely fast heating phase lasts a mere three seconds, which is as much as 80 percent quicker than other processes.
Natural packaging for natural products
Despite the great potential and host of opportunities for improvements in the field of packaging, there is still a number of unresolved issues. Take the question of packaging made of renewable materials, for example. PLA and PET made of plant materials are a hot topic right now, since they have a much smaller carbon footprint than plastics based on oil. Yet there is also criticism that the crops used for this purpose are cultivated on land that would otherwise serve for growing food. There are several conceivable solutions to this problem. For example, waste matter might be used as a raw material. Alternatively, efforts could be made to meet the growing call for closed-loop recycling, whereby, for example, a yoghurt carton made of bioplastic is recycled to produce food packaging of an equal quality, rather than being incinerated to generate energy or turned into a recycled product of a lower grade. At present, the production of "green" PET still relies on either molasses from the sugar industry or sugarcane juice - as in Coca-Cola's PlantBottle packaging. Research is still under way to ascertain whether by-products from agriculture and forestry, such as wood chippings, maize straw and wheat straw, might also be used. The presence of plant materials in PET bottles does not alter their chemical composition. Consequently, there is no requirement for a separate recycling process here, either.
At the same time, researchers are now coming up with completely new materials made of abundantly available by-products. The Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging (Fraunhofer IVV), for example, has not only developed a biomaterial made of whey protein but also devised a cost-effective process for mass-producing a multifunctional plastic film for food packaging.
Packaging comprising a transparent, multilayer plastic film is commonly used to isolate food from its environment. To minimize the amount of oxygen reaching the contents, such packaging frequently features a barrier layer made of expensive oil-based polymers such as ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH). The Fraunhofer IVV development exploits two important properties: substances naturally occurring in whey naturally extend the shelf life of food products and a barrier layer of whey protein is biologically degradable. The researchers have succeeded in producing multilayer films with barrier properties, suitable for making flexible, transparent materials for food packaging. Existing plants will be able to manufacture the new film following only minor modifications. Researchers are now working hard to replace the EVOH layer in thermoform composites with a barrier layer based on whey protein.
Whatever of the precise form of future packaging, one thing is sure: so long as people want to transport and store food, there will always be a need for packaging.