Virus crisis and packaging

The real effects on the packaging industry from the present virus crisis is hard to comprehend. But regarding food packaging in the short to medium term we will see online grocery shopping grow, more focus on hygiene and price without losing the grip of sustainable solutions.

The long-term consequences of a pandemic like this one is hard to have a strong view on at this stage. Likely short-term results appears to be a downturn in the overall economy with double digit declines of GDP’s and increased unemployment. Some of the hardest hit industries, so far, seem to be the hotel and restaurant industry, the travel and event industries and retai

When it comes to retailing it is not anything like a general decline, the grocery retailing is in a much better position than capital goods retailing. Right now, people obviously stay more at home for eating and socializing. Going out is rarely an option and food and beverages are bought from stores rather than restaurants. Also, pharmacies are open for business selling medicines as well as personal care products.

Where is this possibly going then?

As a result, the pandemic is speeding up trends like remote working but also online grocery shopping and possibly other retail technologies. The effects of this pandemic for the retail industry could be an increased e-commerce business as well as growing interest in cashless stores, automated replenishment and cashier free self-checkouts.

And for food packaging?

Demand for food packaging as such will be up as people will eat more at home. Now when many restaurants and food-service outlets are closed this is obvious, but as the crisis opens for new behavior patterns some will stay, also when things get a bit more normal. There might also be some stockpiling and a new normal can very well be to have more than a few days of preserved food in the larder. This also goes for personal care and healthcare products.

Grocery e-commerce has so far been developing at very different paces in Europe. The UK is still in the lead according to Forbes (2018) followed by Czech Rep. and Estonia. As a result of the virus pandemic the habit of ordering online and receiving, or picking up, your shopping is fast developing and will get a boost from the extreme situation we are now experiencing. This is a clear step in consumer acceptance and adoption of the channel. New and better packaging solutions are being developed and innovative delivery methods are created.

I don’t think that sustainability will go away because of the shifted focus. The consumer demand is too strong, and the concept of sustainable packaging solutions has gotten ingrained in product and company positioning. Demand might temporary go down but if so, it will rapidly bounce back. It could however mean a changed view on initiatives such as the reusable cups introduced at certain coffee chains. People are also probably less interested in the packaging-free shops where you fill loose product in a bag of your own.

Sustainability is also related to the expected increase in general demand for hygiene. Packaging might even become appreciated by the consumers. It is visibly protecting and guaranteeing the freshness of the product. This could also be supporting the introduction of track and trace systems to a broader use. Blockchain technology is available, among other solutions, and is implemented as a useful tool in the distribution chain. This crisis could be a catalyst for increased use of technology for tracking and to guarantee the product origin and what it has experienced before consumption. An increased cost is hard to get around and can, in particular now, be a disadvantage.

It will take a while for the world to get back on track and increased unemployment and uncertain employments will make the average consumer more price sensitive than usual. The result comes as a shift towards a consumer demand for more value-products and private labels will have a field day. Converters and others in the packaging industry will not be spared the requirements for lower prices.

The future is right now not bright, but it is not a dark abyss either. We will have to adopt and be as agile as we can to survive and succeed also in the new tomorrow.

Fresh from the forest – biocomposite

Making biocomposite materials entirely from renewable sources is great. Using waste material in the process is fantastic.

Last week Finnish UPM introduced a new fibre based biocomposite material, all made from forestry and renewable resources and even including using waste from existing pulp production. The material is called EcoAce and meets the desired sustainability requirements and can be widely used, including uses in food contact, personal care and consumer goods, made by injection moulding or extrusion. This is great and will save tonnes of GHG and I really like concept of finding practical use of stuff that would otherwise be waste! Splendid!

StoraEnso is at present busy with a trial of lids made from DuraSense, another biocomposite, together with Finnish dairy Valio. The lids are reusable and will be used on dairy product cups to test the wood-based biocomposite in food packaging.
Valio sees it as a step not only towards a more sustainable packaging solution but also to less food-waste. With re-sealable packaging the content is protected, and an opened product lasts longer. Brilliant!

Power from the forest!
Swedish Ligna Energy came up with another use for wood from the forest. They have developed a fibre based battery for storing of energy made from forestry waste material. Ligna Energy plan to convert ordinary paper machines to manufacture batteries based on organic electronic polymers and biopolymers from the forest.
It wood be nice if this could make a difference for storing energy!

What has packaging got to do with Food Waste?

Food waste is a major challenge involving the entire value chain. The main culprit is however and without doubt found at consumer level.
This is a complex problem but part of the solution lies in using better and more suitable packaging.

We simply can’t afford the current level of food wasted. Exactly how much is wasted is impossible to say, but a global estimate is more than 1 billion tons of food that is somehow lost or wasted on a yearly basis. That is about one staggering third of the global food production! Better adapted packaging is part of the solution.


The problem
This loss and wastage occur on all steps in the food supply chain but if we stay in the developed world a whole lot of food is wasted in the end of the road from the famous farm to the fork. The main culprit seems to be found at the final consumption stage, in our homes. But also, the other steps along the chain are involved in this.

A very recent report from Swedish Naturvårdsverket is mapping out the current Food Waste situation in the country. And it is not pretty. In 2018 about 1.3 million tons of food waste was generated in Sweden. This is an average of 133 kilos of food waste per person. As the graph clearly illustrates the main problem lies in the hands of the end-consumers in the households.

The problem isn’t easily pin pointed and solved as it involves all engaged in the consumption, production and distribution chain. But packaging is part of the problem and therefore also part of the solution.


The packaging link
This is a waste we can’t afford when we are going from 7 billion people to become 10 billion of us, not in Sweden but on the planet, in 2050. If we instead of increasing food production and cultivate vast new areas could save a third of what we today produce, we would in theory solve the problem to feed the growing world population.

The massive waste of food in the households has many reasons. Too little shopping planning and lack of pantry and fridge management to start with and perhaps food is too cheap and available. But as much as 20-25% of consumer food waste could be related to packaging.

The packaging is a part of the problem when ineffective packaging is used.

  • This could be about size, too big or a multi-pack, simply too much product and more than you can or want to consume.
  • It could be the lack of possibilities to re-seal the opened packaging and the content gets exposed and destroyed.
  • It could be packaging that can’t be shut tight enough and oxygen, light or something spoils the product.
  • Not clear enough instructions about storage, with the result that a product is kept too warm too cold, is part of the story.
  • Packaging that is hard to empty or confusion around the date labelling of a product.

Or it could be too ambitious light weighting that can lead to packaging that simply isn’t good enough to withstand a bumpy ride to the destination.
To mention a few. Much of the above comes to structural design of packaging but a lot of food is wasted because of the confusion about “best before” and” use by” date labels. One day we will have dynamic best before dates with built in sensors showing the actual best before date rather than a fixed one. But we are not quite there yet.


The solution
Apart from consumers improving their fridge management and doing more organized shopping the packaging industry can offer better packaging solutions. And food producers can use it…!

So, what is more effective packaging then? What I mean is packaging that is

  • Re-sealable. That is a screw cap, a zip-lock or something that enables the consumer to save product for later.
  • Easy emptying. Think of how to make it easier to empty the pack. It can be instructions on how to or a packaging feature like a collapsible container.
  • Modified or Controlled Atmosphere (MAP/CAP) these are technologies used to keep fresh food fresh for longer and adds real value by extending shelf-life.
  • Barrier materials. Use packaging with good enough barriers to oxygen, light or whatever is breaking down the content. The result is again extended shelf-life and less food waste.
  • Portion packages. This is a low hanging but effective fruit. By using smaller portion packs, the small household gets a better control of usage.
  • Smart packaging solutions of various kinds are helpful. Smart labels indicating time or temperature, ripeness for fruit, freshness for meat, fish, etc.

Technology is developing enabling new and better packaging solutions. Sensors are coming down in price and new creative concepts are brought forward by entrepreneurs.
But it hasn’t all have to be hi-tech, a cucumber has a “best before” life of 3 days and by wrapping it in plastic it increases by almost 5 times, to 14 days. Portion packs may require more packaging material but will probably save food from being wasted.

And the greenhouse gas emissions or GHGE related to food packaging is typically small, typically around 5%, relative to the emissions associated with producing and processing the food itself.

Why is blockchain important to the packaging industry?

From volatile crypto currency to a solid system adding value for the supply chain. Blockchain technology can be the key to value chain transparency and a solution to the ever-growing problem with counterfeits.


What is it?

A Blockchain is a database of records, here called blocks. What makes the database special is that these records are interlinked, or chained, using a hidden code. This is useful in a supply chain involving transport and transactions that can be recorded as blocks. Each block contains a cryptographic link to the previous block plus information on when a transaction occurred, who was involved and much more.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is trolly.png

This may sound slightly abstract, but it makes the Blockchain concept decentralised and transparent. A key element is that the process is spread out across multiple computers with the consequence that no one has ownership of the information on the “ledger”. A non-corruptible database!

Using a Blockchain you bypass the concept of a centralised organisation by giving everyone involved a complete and unalterable copy of the register of all transactions.TO MY HOMEPAGEAdd Button

Why is it important for packaging?

Blockchain technology relates to packaging as it can be used to:

  • Provide consumers information regarding a product’s authenticity and origin. The identity of a product can be verified as the packaging is read and recorded to the “ledger” when handled along the transport, all the way to the destination. As the records can’t be altered retroactively, it means that all information on the ledger is by default authenticated, but without the paperwork of today.
  • Track and trace products along the value chain. When the value chain (packaging converters, printers, raw material producers, fillers, brand owners, retailers, etc.) join up in a Blockchain and makes the process transparent they will all share the same picture of origin and handling of products. If a batch is contaminated it can then easily be traced. Traceability is a key aspect and an opportunity, in particular for the food and pharma industries.
  • Ensure brand protection and serve as anti-counterfeit technology. Consumers will be able to tell a fake product simply pointing their phone at the packaging and read the QR code. Blockchain will prove to be a useful tool for building brand trust as a neutral and immutable system.

The demand for transparency and traceability is increasing, driven by counterfeits troubling the pharma industry and recent food scandals that shook the industry. Using Blockchain technology the consumer with a smartphone can simply scan a QR code on the packaging to follow the product journey, from farm to plate.

Who are using it already today?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is arla.jpg

It might not be mainstream, yet, but the technology is already in use for mundane items such as milk and coffee. In the lead we find major food suppliers like Arla who are running a pilot project in Finland using Blockchain to provide transparency for milk products. Nestlé recently started up their pilot but in a larger, or even global scale involving milk and oil. Barilla is using the technology in Italy to certify fresh basil.

Also the retailers are also into this. Carrefour is leading in Europe using the technology on a number of categories like poultry, eggs, cheese, milk, oranges, etc. On the other side of the pond Walmart is demanding Blockchain traceability for selected vegetables.

Where is this going?

This is only the beginning. Driven by the main advantages’ security, decentralisation and transparency Blockchain as a tool will gain momentum and develop fast.

The technology might seem complicated to use, but the tools are available and new entrepreneurs are coming in with easy to use solutions. With a straightforward access we can expect to see a rapid adoption rate, with a variety of applications. The packaging industry needs to be ready to handle their part of the chain of blocks. Printing and packaging are keys for success.