Seal of approval

Packaging companies and packaging machinery suppliers are coming under increasing pressure to produce meat packaging that is lighter, more recyclable and has greater sustainability. Firms should also be looking at innovative types of packaging that preserve the contents longer, so it cuts down on the amount of out-of-date or deteriorated meat that consumers throw away, say experts.

Considerable progress has been made in all these areas in recent years, partly through political pressure that is now being ratcheted up even further, with new targets stretching as far ahead as 2020. Achieving some of these targets will be extremely challenging, the industry says.

The drive to reduce the amount of packaging and its weight is not being driven solely by companies' desire to reduce their carbon footprint, but also due to the recent economic recession, which has seen firms explore every possible avenue to drive down costs.

At the forefront of political momentum to reduce packaging and cut food waste has been the so-called Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing the carbon and wider environmental impact, not just in the meat industry but also across the wider grocery retail sector. Earlier this year, the agreement entered a more ambitious and wider Phase 2 programme to develop solutions across the supply chain, including innovative packaging formats, reduced pack weights and increased recycled content amid a range of other initiatives that also involve working on solutions for reducing food waste through innovative packaging. Since its launch, more than 40 major retailers representing 92% of UK grocery supermarkets, along with brand owners, manufacturers and suppliers, have signed the agreement, which is managed on behalf of the government by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

Working to a 2012 deadline and compared to 2009 data, Phase 2 moves away from solely weight-based targets and aims to achieve more sustainable use of resources over the entire lifecycle of products, throughout the whole supply chain. There are three main targets: reducing the carbon impact of food packaging by 10% by decreasing its weight, increasing its recycled content and increasing recycling rates; reducing packaging and food waste in the grocery supply chain by 5%; and reducing UK household food and drink waste by 4%.

Peter Skelton of WRAP's retail team says that, rather than simply concentrating on reducing the amount of packaging, the meat industry should be looking at new types of packaging that helps consumers preserve meat rather than waste it. "It may mean the meat industry should be looking to package smaller portions, or to make the packaging more sophisticated," he says. "For example, rather than having eight chicken breasts in one tray, for instance, why not have a tray that, perhaps, has two compartments, so the consumer can take out four breasts but keep the others in a separate compartment that remains in a modified atmosphere? It's not just about reducing packaging waste, but optimising packaging where possible while ensuring the contents are protected, secure and remain fresh."

UK packaging and packaging machinery firms are working towards the new targets, although they say that some will be easier to achieve than others. Andrew Copson, managing director of Sharp Interpack, says it is right that the latest phase of the agreement goes beyond simple weight-based targets for packaging reduction. "This fits well with our strategic approach to packaging and the environment," says Copson. "Under Courtauld Phase 1, we worked with the supply chain to reduce our average pack weight by 25% in the period 2005-2010. Now, under Phase 2, we are offering material choices that feature recycled materials and lower carbon blends. Our 'r-PET', 'Eco-PET' and 'c-LOW' product ranges are examples. We strongly support any initiatives that promote plastic packaging recycling in the UK. In principle, all the packaging that we produce could be recycled; it's a tragic waste of resources to see the majority of it not being collected for recycling.

"We would like to see local authorities being more proactive about this issue and working with the plastic supply chain by introducing more high-quality, kerb-side collection schemes for packaging. We have been party to an example of good practice in the Netherlands, where we are co-operating with the Dutch 'Plastic Heroes' recycling scheme, which will lead to 42% of all Dutch plastic packaging being effectively recycled by the end of 2012."

Research published earlier this year, based on data collected from various sources including the FDF, Environment Agency, WRAP/DHL, WRAP and Eurostat, shows that the total economic cost of food, drink and packaging waste in the UK is estimated at 17bn per annum with 5bn generated by the supply chain and 12bn by households. Among the initiatives being considered to prevent waste are the employment of more 'lean' technology during packaging production and so-called 'resource mapping' to identify where waste occurs in the supply chain, providing good practice guides and introducing benchmarking. Work in this area has started on meat and fish. A report will be published in the autumn.

Work is also being done to identify technologies and systems that cut waste, water and energy use. Looking even further ahead, the government has issued a Packaging Consultation Document, which tasks the UK with a recycling rate of 70% by 2020 for all packaging on the market. It proposes a gradual increase across all material-specific targets from 2011, with a further review in 2015. Copson says: "For the first time, it examines the carbon savings to be made by recycling; both glass and plastic could deliver the most tonnage. The desired recycling rate for plastic would increase from 22.8% in 2011 to 56.9% in 2020. This will be extremely challenging. While we would like to see more plastics being recycled, especially from trays, punnets and bottles, it would require a huge increase in the infrastructure to achieve these targets."

Nutri Pack, the French packaging manufacturer that also has bases in the UK and Spain, has set up a tray recovery and recycling network that may point the way forward. The network has been operating since 2008, and became fully functional last year following investment with the help of ADEME, (the Agency for Environment and Energy Recovery) and the help of the Nord Pas de Calais region in France where its main factory and head office is based. The company, which is part of the Proplast Group that includes machinery manufacturer Mecaplastic, recycles polypropylene food trays. Once used the trays are washed, dried, stored, collected, and crushed into material that is 100% recyclable.

Packaging reduction

There is also greater scope to achieve targets in other areas. Halving the amount of packaging may be possible in some cases, it is claimed. Given present packaging technology, there is a lot of room to reduce the amount of packaging used by food manufacturers, says Sealed Air's director of sustainability services Eugenio Longo. The use of recycled materials is also important, but weight reduction, while maintaining performance, remains a priority to improve packaging sustainability. Longo estimates that the packaging industry may be able to reduce the volume of material used by as much as 50% in a number of applications, with an average reduction of 10% industry-wide. He cites major UK retailers' moves to replace trays and lids with sealed bags for some of its meat as a way forward, but adds that there is a limit to how far the industry can go, what consumers will accept and what will be practical.

Packaging in sealed bags has greater benefits than just reducing packaging weight; it also has the potential to reduce emissions related to transport and refrigerators along the supply chain, and at distribution and retail level, thanks to reduced pack volumes. Sealed bags are only suitable for some types of meats though. "It would be difficult to repackage steak in this way, for example, and for the consumer to accept it," says Longo.

Other technologies will have to be used, such as skin packaging systems. Longo agrees with WRAP's analysis that the focus should not just be on reducing packaging, but on systems that prevent meat waste. There has to be a balance, though, between using engineering solutions to achieve less food waste and changing buying and consumption habits, he says. Between 30% and 40% of food bought is thrown away, mainly because people buy too much or it spoils before it can be consumed, he claims. Although economic factors may reduce this, educating people to change their behaviour is an equally valid way forward. Packaging solutions are available and can be provided to adapt to these new consumer needs, he says.

careful evaluation needed

While the volume of packaging used will continue to reduce over the coming decade, the financial and environmental impact of recycling meat packaging has to be carefully evaluated and taken into account when doing sustainability evaluations, he warns. In addition, supply chains have to be redesigned to accommodate recycled material.

Part of the problem is demand from marketers for better presentation, says Longo. In the case of the meat industry, foam trays are a better product from an environmental standpoint, because they weigh less but the market has largely moved to rigid packaging. Even so, the packaging part of the meat supply chain only accounts for less than 5% of the total environmental impact of meat production, Longo adds. Current packaging systems are the best they have ever been at preserving and protecting food, preventing food waste and increasing shelf-life. The implication is that moving to less packaging and introducing more environmentally friendly systems must not be at the expense of these very tangible benefits.

Ishida's marketing manager for Europe Torsten Giese says that while much of the focus is on making packaging that looks good and lasts a long time, there will be ways that equipment companies will be able to help retailers and food manufacturers reduce their carbon footprint. Some of the technology is available now. A new generation of energy-efficient, more powerful packaging machines that use less compressed air and therefore less electricity will become available in the next few years. Food manufacturers will be able to monitor the energy used directly off the machinery.

"The pressure will be on, because food manufacturers will be requested to reduce their energy consumption and so they will put that stipulation in their requests for quotes from machinery manufacturers, saying, 'You can only quote if you can prove you can reduce the energy consumed'."

Sophisticated tooling

Massive savings will be made as the industry moves towards greater use of recyclable rigid tray materials over the next few years. Machinery manufacturers are gearing up for this by developing more sophisticated tooling. A more immediate way that retailers and food manufacturers can reduce their carbon footprint is by moving from so-called 'outside-cut' tray-sealing, where the film overlaps the tray by some 3-5mm, to so-called 'inside-cut' technology.

Inside-cut tray-sealing uses less film by cutting it precisely to the edge of the tray. It produces a more presentable, neater finish to the tray, but the tooling necessary to manufacture the finished tray is more expensive, and the number of tray rejects is slightly higher, says Giese. Nevertheless, savings on film can offset much of the extra costs of tooling and rejects. Although a saving of 3-5mm of trim around the edge of a tray may not sound much, it soon mounts up when multiplied thousands of times over the course of a year. The annual film savings will typically add up to thousands of pounds, he says. The potential of retailers and food manufacturers to make use of this technology to reduce their carbon footprint is great.

Ken Mossford, managing director of Reiser UK, says: "More and more food manufacturers are looking at alternative packaging solutions, trying to reduce costs and be greener. We are working with the materials people, as well as our customers and suppliers, to adapt the machines we have to achieve this."

Packaging machinery companies have to work with many different types of materials, he adds. More materials are being used and developed to look at ways of saving film costs and recycling some of the waste materials from the machine. This creates other issues from an operational point of view due to the delicate nature of working with these materials, he says. "More and more of our customers are looking into different options to produce a more environmentally-friendly, lighter package, so working with them to develop these packages is a critical part of what we can offer."

Lower-energy equipment

Machinery running costs are also falling, as more machines are introduced that operate using less power. "We are moving to more use of servo-controls and inverters to control the speed and power of the machine, rather than traditional motors and drives. When a machine with these servo systems starts, it reduces the power peak, being more efficient in energy usage and consumption, so when stopping and starting the machines throughout the day, there is a more consistent use of power without peaks and troughs."

Tray seal machinery company Proseal UK has been doing much work on reducing energy use in its machines. Tony Burgess, control systems manager, says the company is working in three areas to address greater production efficiency. The first is in development of more powerful machines that use less energy.

"When we do a heat-seal, we apply force to the tray. The greater the force we can apply, the quicker the seal time. With our EcoSeal system, for example, we can reduce seal times by 30-40%. We see an increase in production levels and production speed. A Proseal machine fitted with the EcoSeal high-seal force system benefits from an increase in seal force of 190%, but consumes only 30% of the air of a machine fitted with an equivalent standard pneumatic cylinder."

The second development has involved an improved heat-sealing element called 'Hot Rod', which has twice the life of a standard heat-sealing source. "We are able to concentrate the heat more accurately round the seal profile, generating less energy usage; in addition, the Hot Rod system potentially increases machine productivity through a reduced seal time."

Proseal has also come up with a system that reduces waste from the film used to cover trays. Each time film is impressed on to a tray, it creates a small amount of what is termed 'skeletal' waste. The Proseal close-cut system reduces this waste significantly to the point where film usage can achieve an 11% waste saving.

The tantalising prospect of so-called active and intelligent systems being incorporated into modified atmosphere packs to indicate use-by dates, correct temperatures of content or the quality of the atmosphere within the pack, is on the horizon. However, whether this will happen remains to be seen. Burgess says: "From a consumer and environmental point of view, it means more packaging going into the product and possibly more cost as well."

Robotic advantage

Marel Food Systems has been working with the University of Lincoln to demonstrate that the use of automated 'pick and place' robots in place of human operators can extend shelf-life and, therefore, cut down on food waste.
Marel machinery, installed in the University's modern food processing demonstration department, is used to illustrate how robotic handling, compared to manual, can cut down on the so-called 'loading' of bacteria on to products being packaged. This is particularly important in ensuring that pathogenic organisms, such as salmonella and E.coli 0157, are totally absent from products.
The extent of added shelf-life to a product will depend on what it is and how it is handled throughout the rest of the supply chain and, not least, by the consumer after purchase but Marel estimates that it can be in the region of an extra day for some products, a significant increase.
Human contact is recognised as a large risk of potential bacterial contamination of food products hence the focus on development of machinery that can do the same tasks. In high-risk packing areas, the hands in particular are seen as the most likely contaminators of products if hygiene is not maintained at the highest level. The surface temperature of a gloved hand in a refrigerated area will be about 21C, providing an incubation surface that can double the amount of bacteria harboured in just four hours.
Robotic packing machinery can also operate in environments with a much lower temperature than in hand-packing operations, further reducing the risk and speed of potential bacterial growth.
Finally, the risk of humans making errors through simple mistakes, due to the speed of the operating system or through tiredness when working with vacuum and MAP systems, can lead to pack heat seal failure as a result of food being trapped under the seal. This, too, can be eliminated by the use of robots.
The University of Lincoln's facility is used to demonstrate a range of processing operations to the industry and to trainees.

work at retail level

Supermarkets have been working with packaging firms to reduce the environmental impact of their meat packs. Marks & Spencer has replaced plastic trays for its beef joints with skin-packs that wrap tightly around the product, cutting packaging weight by up to 69% and keeping meat fresher for up to four extra days, it is claimed. Asda, too, has achieved a 17.5% weight reduction in its polypropylene (PP) trays in recent years resulting in 279t less PP packaging and generating 588t less CO2.