For some time now, the headlines of the food industry have been dominated by the extensive EU plastics regulation, which is calling for considerably less plastic and significantly more recycling. Packaging specialist SEALPAC took up this topic in a variety of ways. Well-developed concepts that save on the environment and allow for more sustainable packaging of food items have been met with great interest by food manufacturers recently. We talked to Marcel Veenstra, Marketing & Communications Manager at SEALPAC, about the company’s solutions under its “GO sustainable!” initiative.
Sustainability has been the central theme of SEALPAC’s presentation around the world. In which way did you deal with this?
Achieving better climate protection through more sustainable use of resources is a global challenge. The packaging industry clearly has a holistic responsibility and must consider the many interlinked aspects in the development of more sustainable, yet at the same time functional packaging. Our company, in close collaboration with leading manufacturers of packaging materials, already recognized in the year 2003 that by modifying established packaging we could deliver even greater value. At that time, we introduced the rib structure to trays for modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), thus improving the flow of the protective gas inside the pack and increasing the stability of the tray.
In a similar way, we approached the issue of sustainability. For the most common tray size in the meat segment in Western Europe, which is 190 x 144 x 50 mm, together with our partners on the materials side, we have been able to significantly reduce the amount of plastic – whilst maintaining perfect machinability and processing stability. In 2003, such trays used to weigh around 18 grams, where in the course of the previous years we were able to reduce the weight of the MAP tray to less than 10 grams.
Our Research & Development department is continuously looking for ways to further reduce the amount of plastics used for pre-packaged food items. At the same time, recycling must be further promoted. This is where we can support by allowing the consumer to separate the packaging in to its individual components. The production process of the tray must ensure this functionality, but we also need to assist the consumer in this matter by means of communication. If consumers experience the benefits themselves, for example by reducing the amount of plastic waste at home, they will be more likely to change their behaviour in the long term. This was also shown by a consumer survey in the German Lebensmittelzeitung (33/2018). According to this survey, 69 percent of the consumers would be willing to dismantle the packaging in its individual components and dispose of them separately.
Does this mean that we will be free of plastic in the future?
No, because that would have a negative impact on shelf life and cause even more food waste than we already see today, which on its own also hurts the environment badly. Based on current technologies, without plastic or plastic composites no safe or technologically sustainable packaging can be realized. The question therefore is: how can plastics be used to achieve more sustainable solutions?
Certain products, such as fresh or processed meat, require strong barriers against moisture and oxygen, in order to maintain the quality and shelf life of the product. The only solution there can be to reduce the amount of plastics as much as possible and, if necessary, replace it with alternative carrier materials, such as cardboard. We do this by increasing the proportion of fibre in some of our packaging systems. Take, for example, our FlatSkin® system, which we have now been promoting successfully for two years in the meat and seafood segment.
What is special about FlatSkin®?
FlatSkin®, equal to vacuum skin packaging of products on a flat cardboard carrier with a thin plastic liner, results in more sustainability as it reduces the amount of packaging materials used and improves recycling. In the meantime, it offers an eye-catching presentation at retail. Especially important: the pack provides sufficient space for storytelling, including the sustainability message and the handling of the two materials (cardboard and plastic) for optimal waste disposal. With FlatSkin®, we have very quickly found acceptance among manufacturers, retailers and consumers, as it impresses with its process reliability and optical presentation. At the same time, it allows for better communication with consumers.
By introducing eTray®, you are now also bringing this concept to modified atmosphere packaging?
Put simply, you could mention it that way. One of the demands from the market was to create a solution comparable with FlatSkin®for products packaged under modified atmosphere. At the IFFA exhibition in May 2019, we therefore introduced a new tray that follows the basic principles of FlatSkin®: less plastic, more communication. This new system is called eTray®, in which the “e“ stands for ecological. The cardboard base takes up 55% of the tray, the plastic inlay accounts for just 36% and the top film is the remaining 9% of the tray. The feedback from the visitors to our stand at IFFA 2019 has been excellent, both from the side of manufacturers and retailers.
Can you describe the eTray® concept?
eTray® consists of a high-quality cardboard base, which can be fully printed on the inside and outside, hence allowing for attractive designs and offering plenty of space for communication. It has a plastic inner layer that purely provides the sealing and barrier function. The trays are prefabricated by means of a special thermoforming process. Owing to their highly stable, uninterrupted sealing edge, each tray is reliably sealed under MAP to ensure the safest packaging process. The innovative eTray®is suitable for denesting and allows for smooth transport across the packaging line. Compared to common trays in the market, up to 40% less plastic will be used, depending on shape and size.
After use, the same process applies to FlatSkin®: the packaging is easily divided in to its cardboard and plastic components, hence allowing for separate disposal and recycling. The eTray®system offers fresh food, such as red meat, seafood, poultry and ready meals, optimal protection whilst ensuring an eye-catching appearance at retail. And probably the most important benefit: without any major investment in new equipment. eTray®can be run on almost any existing machine or tooling.
In the marketplace today, we see more and more hybrid packs that contain both cardboard and plastic. Where is this heading?
As part of our “GO sustainable!” initiative, we conducted intensive market research and had many discussions with customers in advance. This convinced us that any new packaging processes in the dynamic fresh food segment must be simple and easy to implement. By teaming up with innovative packaging material suppliers, we were already able to introduce eTray®, a state-of-the-art and easy-to-use solution for modified atmosphere packaging, but also installed several other applications for paper-based trays, such as Halopack® and Jospak®. Due to our unique Rapid Air Forming technology, we are even able to offer paper-based modified atmosphere packaging on our standard SEALPAC thermoformers. As we do not believe that food manufacturers themselves will be able to develop entirely new packaging systems in the future, we will continue to invest in our R&D activities in assisting the packaging industry to become more resource saving.