Food packaging has often focused on two primary consumer aspects; convenience and preserving the quality of the food. Consumer’s environmental and health concerns and corporation’s supply chain and energy cost goals are driving innovation in food packaging; creating a growing demand for changes.

What is changing?

Through growing awareness of the volume of solid waste generated and its environmental impact, food brands are seeking to reduce the volume of their packaging. Less packaging also means lower transportation costs. To address these concerns, Wikicell, a start-up working on edible and biodegradable food packaging, has launched its first commercial product, a fudge tasting “wrapper” for ice cream which is eaten along with the ice cream.  Other products in the works at Wikicell’s laboratory include drink packaging which can be eaten; imagine an orange juice “bottle” which tastes like an orange and you eat after you have consumed the juice.  Also being explored in the lab is food packaging which you put directly in the compost bin, much like skin from a piece of fruit.

Marks and Spencer, a large UK retailer, has recently introduced patented technology to enable fruit to last longer.  Made of clay and other minerals that absorb ethylene, a hormone that ripens fruit, the “It’s Fresh” strips are added to the bottom of strawberry punnets to slow the ripening of the fruit and reduce spoilage.  (Food waste is also a global problem, see the recent trend alert on food waste.)  The estimate of food, drink and packaging waste in the UK alone is 6.6 metric tonnes per annum and costs £5 billion.

Rising fossil fuel costs are driving corporations to seek alternatives to petroleum-based plastic packaging.  Soft drink, water bottles and other plastic food bottles are shifting away from petroleum-based plastic products to plant-based plastics.  In early 2011, the US Department of Agriculture introduced product specific certification guidelines, collectively referred to as bio-based products.  Certified products display a logo and indicate the percentage of both the packaging and the actual product derived from plant based-products.    Since being introduced, a growing number of brands are not only certifying their existing products but also changing packaging in order to qualify for certification.

Growing consumer safety concerns about the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in plastics and nanotechnology in food and food packaging are also influencing governments to explore regulation and companies to change their packaging.  Nanotechnology in food packaging is receiving greater scrutiny.  A largely unregulated area, in November 2011, the European Food Safety Authority issued a definition of what they consider nanotech in food and packaging and are now actively working toward developing safety guidelines.

Why is this important?

Food waste is a growing issue, anything that can assist to reduce the volume of spoilage in a safe manner are welcome advances.  At the same time the growing volume of garbage is also a global issue and food packaging is a substantial contributor to this dilemma.  Reducing packaging at its source means less waste and material to recycle and lowers overall transport costs; thus lowering the environmental impact. Few things influence individual health more than the food they eat, therefore safety in the packaging of food items is a global health issue.  The quest to create safe, low waste, low environmental impact packaging is therefore likely to continue to drive innovation in this area.

By Elizabeth Rudd

About the author

Elizabeth has a strong background assisting clients to navigate the often conflicting signals in their external environments and find innovative opportunities .  As a strategic foresight consultant at FutureNous she has assisted organisation to explore the future to find new products, alter their business model, find expansion opportunities and build their resilience.  Her experience spans many industries including technology, mining, utilities, healthcare, non-profits, government, media and telecommunications, and many others.   Elizabeth also works with Shaping Tomorrow writing Trend Alerts and more in-depth reports exploring the impact of long term (macro) trends.