By Deepika Matharoo
Globalization has caused a surge in food supply and demand, resulting in longer distribution in the food supply chain and prolonged storage durations. This has amplified the importance of packaging in protecting the quality and freshness of the food, and in providing the right information on the food product that allows its distribution and commercialization.
Vermeiren et al. (1999) explain that changes in the food products like darkening, unpleasant odour, loss of nutrients is very likely to occur if the wrong packaging is used. Different packaging materials, such as glass, metals (i.e. aluminium, foils and laminates, tinplate, and tin-free steel), paper and board, ceramics and plastics (i.e. rigid and flexible) (Iacovidou and Gerassimidou, 2018) can offer different advantages. Glass can preserve the taste of the food and is chemically inert. Paper or cardboard are biodegradable, easy to print on, and can be used for the protection of food that is to be consumed within short duration, e.g. bakery goods (Raheem 2012). Metals offer advantages like water-resistance, malleability and recyclability, and protect the food item against air, moisture, microorganisms and odours (Montes and Munoz 2021). Plastics are versatile, lightweight, moisture -resistant, good oxygen barrier and are particularly useful in protecting a variety of food items and beverages; plastic material is highest in demand for food packing applications (Arrieta et al., 2017).
Nonetheless, it is not just the packaging that extends the shelf life of food and beverages, but the combined synergy of packaging with storage conditions that needs to be closely monitored to ensure high quality food standards (Montes and Munoz 2021; Müller and Schmid 2019). Innovation in the food packaging industry, has led to the development of active and intelligent packaging. But what do we know about this packaging? And most importantly how sustainable this innovation is?
Active packaging increases the shelf-life of food products via the incorporation of certain ingredients into the packaging materials (Realini and Marcos, 2014). These ingredients (known as additives) can act as oxygen scavengers, antimicrobial agents, and antioxidants, that can prevent, or slow-down food degradation mechanisms, and eliminate food safety risks, or they can be used as ripening and flavour releasing agents. This, in turn, helps to prolong food’s shelf-life and sustain the sensory characteristics (softness and taste), quality and safety of the food; minimising rejection by the consumers and preventing food waste generation. The additives used in active packages can be synthetic (e.g. butylated hydroxyanisole, ethylene), or natural (e.g. metals, polyphenols, essential oils), and the way they impact on the recyclability of the packaging is not yet clear. For example, recyclable paperboard boxes used for packing infant food has been found to be contaminated with phthalates; suspected endocrine disruptors (Claudio, 2012). Chemical or biological contaminants in recyclable plastic may migrate in the food product with unknown yet health impacts (Raheem, 2012). Essential oils are produced by the plants, however, if consumed and used inappropriately, they may risk the health and cause adverse effects (Yildirim et al., 2018). Moreover, the impacts associated with the production of these additives and their behaviour during the packaging lifecycle requires proper sustainability assessment. Food retailers and manufacturers have begun adopting green practices (Rees, Tremma and Manning, 2019), but whether these are sustainable and safe is still to be investigated.
According to the European regulation, EC/450/2009 intelligent articles and materials are the ones that monitor the environment surrounding food, or the condition of the packaged food (Poyatos-Racionero et al., 2018). Basically, intelligent packaging senses, detects, traces, records and communicates changes in the quality and state of the packaged food product during the entire food supply chain, and it does so through visual changes (Realini and Marcos, 2014). Time-temperature indicators, gas emission indicators, bio-sensors, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are a few types of intelligent packaging (Przekop and Dobrucka, 2019). The RFID tags use electromagnetic fields and consists of an integrated circuit that is composed of an antenna and chip that stores information (Poyatos-Racionero et al., 2018), but are expensive, hence increasing the cost of the packaging. On the down side they also limit packaging recyclability due to the composite nature of the RFID tag. Indicators (e.g. temperature, or gas) are simple to design and easy to use. They cause a visual change (e.g. colour) on the packaging according to temperature/gas changes making it easy for distributors, retailers, wholesalers and consumer to detect potential changes in the food quality. Bio-sensors made up of a receptor and a transducer and can detect changes in the environment inside the packaging (Abreu, Cruz and Losada, 2012), preventing food spoilage and contributing to efforts to minimise food waste. These smart packaging solutions can have a detrimental role to play in the future sustainability of the food system. But are the materials used in indicators and bio-sensors making from bio-based materials? How are these indicators/sensors going to impact on the recyclability of packaging? How do we avoid potential unintended consequences spilling over to the packaging systems?
Countries like Japan, U.S.A. and Australia are incorporating the use of active and intelligent packaging to monitor safety and quality of food and prolong its shelf-life (Kruijf et al., 2010). Commercial application of active and intelligent packaging systems is likely to increase in the coming years. But is this a sustainable way forward? By adopting a holistic, systems-based approach we can attain a much clearer conceptualization of the unintended consequences of advances in the food packaging systems, and a much better understanding of how to manage such interventions, both before and after their implementation. Moreover, further research on the use of additives derived from natural resources, the role of biodegradable packaging materials, and advances in biotechnology may change what we know and help to improve not only sustainability in the food system, but also in the packaging system.
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Deepika is an engineer by profession, with an avid work experience in hardware electronics at multi-nationals, followed by managerial roles both in academic and local community environments. She has a deep interest in environmental management and she is currently pursuing a Masters in Environmental Management, at Brunel University London.
There is strong and reciprocating relationship between humans and environment. Development is important, but not at the stake of degrading nature. Economy has grown, globalization has boomed, all at the cost of environment. It is time that we take notice of it and start working towards a sustainable future. We all have heard about climate change; we are all experiencing its impacts; but not all are aware of the responsibility bestowed upon them. There is a lot to do at macro and meso level, however, substantial effort needs to be made at an individual level as well. I have started doing my bit, it is time for everyone to move towards a better future.