The food packaging industry is a rapidly evolving landscape of continuous product innovation and sustainable technology. However, sometimes innovations at the point of food production itself can, in turn, spur innovation further up the supply-chain. Similarly, new technologies in fresh produce production and preservation can open new possibilities for existing packaging technology. Two recent technological innovations in the industry, the increased prevalence of hydroponics and the development of new protective produce coatings are presenting a number of opportunities for more sustainable packaging solutions.
Hydroponic food production is a steadily growing industry. Once regarded as the ‘farming technology of the future’, it’s now an increasingly common growing method suited to a range of fresh produce including herbs, lettuces as well as various fruits and vegetables. Hydroponics essentially involves growing produce without soil. Instead, plant roots are grown directly in nutrient-rich water in tightly controlled environments. This approach offers a range of benefits including impressive produce yields, faster produce growth, as well as drastically reduced water consumption and land size. The approach also enables produce to be sold as living plants with their roots still in-tact. This, in turn, has significant implications for produce packaging. In 2021, Co-op introduced a range of hydroponically-grown ‘living lettuces’ and tasked the Westpak team with supplying a packaging design that could accommodate this range’s unique packaging requirements. This provided an opportunity to re-assess conventional lettuce packaging from the ground-up, incorporate new materials and technologies and move away from standardised industry approaches that offered poor sustainability. An FSC-certified paper sleeve was sourced that offered complete recyclability as well as a ‘high wet-strength’ coating selectively applied precisely where needed to provide an effective moisture barrier for the plant’s roots. (View more on this case study here). The applications for these sleeves are far-reaching with the design also equally suited to hydroponically-grown herb plants of various varieties.
As an additional recent innovation, we’ve seen grocery retailers beginning to experiment with protective coatings for fresh fruits that can significantly extend product shelf-life. For example, Tesco has recently announced the trial of a plant-based protective coating that it believes will keep fruit fresh for up to twice as long*. Such technologies could be vital in counteracting any potential concerns retailers may have previously had with regard to implications for product shelf-life as a result of utilising more stripped-back and sustainable packaging designs. If such coating technologies become increasingly widespread, (and successful in their product trials), then the defining role of packaging for fresh produce could be significantly redefined. The idea of packaging preserving the freshness of items would certainly remain, but could become a secondary priority in favour of needing to simply group items together at the consumer point-of-sale – something that could enable various sustainably-driven packaging designs to shake-off any pre-existing practicality concerns.
What should the aim be then for the fresh-produce packaging industry? Innovations and the opportunities they present need to be identified as early as possible at various points across the supply chain. Packaging innovations can, of course, continue to be made with produce supplied in standardised formats using long-standing production and growing techniques. However, by closely monitoring the latest developments and technological innovations at the point of horticultural production itself, the packaging industry can evolve in a more closely synchronised way with the wider supply chain.
Author: Chris Fiander