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Plastics revolution in the fresh food market

General Director of Alimentaria Magazine

Fernando Martínez

10 Sep 2019

Plastic has become society’s public enemy number one. Single-use products made of this material are already being regulated at European level. Specifically speaking, the European Parliament has just approved, with a large majority, an agreement of the European Council that establishes the total withdrawal of disposable plastic plates and cutlery from the market by 2021 together with plastic drinking straws, OXO-biodegradable plastics and polystyrene food containers and cups, among others.

No wonder, since more than 80% of waste found in the sea is plastic, according to the European Commission. It is therefore a problem of the highest priority, and that is why it has become the focal point of a European Strategy within the framework of a Circular Economy.

This means recycling must be one of the principal solutions, and there is still a lot of room for growth and improvement: of the 25.8 million tons of plastic waste   generated in Europe every year, less than 30% is collected for recycling   (data from Plastics Europe). Among its objectives, the EU establishes that in 2025, 25% of plastic bottles will have to be recycled, with this figure rising to 30% by 2030. 

Despite these objectives, it will not be easy for us to get this material out of our lives in the short-term. For example, what happens with fresh product packaging? Meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, milk and eggs are more often than not packaged in plastic, and today plastic is still deemed necessary for conservation and transportation purposes. In its EU Plastics Strategy, the European Commission recognises that "plastic packaging contributes towards ensuring food safety and reducing food waste". 

So claims Ignacio Marco, General Director of PlasticsEurope for the Iberian region, the European association that represents the manufacturers of plastic raw materials (the European plastics industry comprises some 60,000 companies, generates about 340 billion euros and employs more than 1,500,000 people): "Thanks to plastic containers, products keep fresh for longer. For example, a cut of meat packed in plastic will stay fresh for an extra 10 days. This helps us achieve three things: lengthening the meat’s shelf life; reducing food waste and protecting the resources that were necessary to produce that meat. The selfsame FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) has acknowledged that, thanks to the way they are packaged, in Europe only 3% of all products reaching the customers spoil between production and transportation compared with 40% in less developed countries. "
 
The PlasticsEurope representative reminds us that this is especially important in the case of fresh products, and stresses that active or smart plastic containers are becoming increasingly efficient: "For example, only 1 and a half grams of plastic keep a cucumber fresh for 14 days. Another example: if grapes are packaged, food wastage is up to 20%less".
 
If we turn our attention to research, we see that many initiatives are already underway. In the case of AIMPLAS, the Technological Institute of Plastics, increasing the shelf life of food is one of its main objectives. In the words of Business Director Sergio Giménez: "We are currently working on projects with companies that involve the development of active and smart packaging. These containers incorporate additives with antioxidant and antimicrobial properties that effectively slow down food degradation mechanisms. Thanks to the projects we have developed in this field, we currently have solutions with very good results in fresh foods, especially those with short shelf lives. This has seen us increase the shelf life of foods such as lettuce, tomatoes or cut fruit by more than 15%. We are also developing labels capable of showing the maturity status of food. Our R&D is also working on the development of sustainable packaging, either containers that include recycled plastics or purely biodegradable packaging".

Regarding this last point, the use of biodegradable plastics and, specifically compostable materials, Ignacio Marco of PlasticsEurope warns that "it must always be borne in mind that in order for these containers to biodegrade, they must be collected separately (not together with conventional plastics) and sent to composting plants". 

The development of this type of more sustainable plastics is a hugely dynamic area. A good example of this is the development of a plastic made using waste vegetable matter by the Ecoembes Innovation Centre, TheCircularLab. The vegetable waste is ground to extract its glucose, and this is used to feed a micro-organism that produces a biopolymer plastic called PHBV (PolyHydroxybutyrvalerate). It could be used to package food and beverages, and, in addition to being recycled, it could be composted and even biodegraded at sea. According to its developers, another of its advantages is that it would help to reduce food waste since it would be made using the waste from municipal markets, etc.

Another line of research, which was recently featured by Alimentaria Magazine in its March edition, is being carried out by the European BioBarr Project - New Bio-based Food Packaging Materials with Enhanced Barrier Properties (Joint Technology Initiative on Bio-Based Industries Programme), which aims to develop a bioplastic alternative, based on polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), that can be used by the agri-food industry. The project, which will run until 2021, seeks to optimise and improve the barrier properties of this material without losing its biodegradability and guaranteeing food safety. The consortium consists of seven partners, including Spain's CNTA (National Centre for Food Technology and Safety).

The same issue also features another research project that is working to generate alternative sustainable packaging. The packaging group of Spain's Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology (IATA) of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) is heading up the BIOCARB-4-FOOD Project, which is investigating how to obtain new ingredients from algae that can be used as raw materials for the production of more sustainable packaging. Specifically, this group is characterising Posidonia oceanica and obtaining lignocellulosic fractions that could serve as materials to create alternative biopolymer containers to those made using synthetic plastics derived from oil. 

And it is not only research centres, but also companies that are engaged in major R&D projects. For example, there is a company located in Doñana (in the province of Huelva), dedicated to the production of organic red fruits, and the only one in the region that exclusively practices organic farming, which is conducting research into biodegradable materials for their packaging. This has seen them working with different companies in the packaging sector, testing different cardboard materials, PLA (biodegradable polymer), etc. "We are currently working on tubs of a strong material made of unfolded kraft paper pulp called 'cartoncillo’ (a type of paperboard). FSC certified, the tubs can be supplied in three formats: bare (very popular in the United Kingdom, Germany, Holland, etc.); with an RPET (recycled PET) lid or with biodegradable mesh/netting", they explain.
  
In the dairy sector, we have the recent example of the launching of a fresh lactose-free milk in a totally renewable container. This is because its stopper and plastic lamination are of vegetable origin (sugar cane, to be exact).

In addition to end products, the reduction of the use of plastics is a problem that affects all the links of the agri-food chain. If we focus on production, the Aitiip Technological Centre of Zaragoza will be holding a conference next  May 29 which will present the results of the Multibiosol Project, which has developed advanced bioplastics for use in the agricultural sector as mulch and in fruit bagging systems. 

In the case of the Doñana-based company mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago, they are also using biodegradable and compostable plastics in the field for the production of their strawberries.

The transportation and logistics of agricultural products is also a key point. In this regard, the vegetable farmers of the Madrid Region are demanding a change in the system of packaging used to move their goods on to middlemen and wholesalers. Under the current system, they must acquire plastic containers that are new and in perfect condition, and their proposal is to implement a system of reusable boxes which can be used several times in conjunction with a washing and sterilisation process.

As for the distribution sector, it also has a lot to say. More and more companies are offering their drinks or products in reusable or refillable containers, and bulk foods are starting to resurface again. This includes one of Spain's leading distribution multinationals launching a pioneering domestic initiative to reduce the consumption of packaging and encourage the use of reusable containers. Thus, customers who so wish may use their own containers (transparent and with lid, be they glass or plastic) to make their purchases of fresh and cured meats and fish, or their own bag or transparent netting for fruit and vegetables. 
Going one step further, the Rimping supermarket in Chiangmai (Thailand) went viral after presenting an interesting proposal: banana leaf wrappers for all kinds of vegetables, from peppers to onions, lettuce and cucumbers, a natural and biodegradable alternative to plastic containers.

The concern about plastics is also reflected in the appearance of certifications that guarantee they can be used sustainably. In this regard, ECOSENSE certification is an initiative launched by the Plastic Sense Foundation aimed at food packaging companies and film and tray producers, which identifies, recognises and raises awareness of the work of those companies that introduce recycled multilayer polymers as a second-generation raw material into their production processes. There are already two Spanish food packaging companies that have this certification, while another two are in the process of attaining it.
The truth is that the first shots have been fired in the plastics revolution, and the process seems unstoppable. The EU is convinced that the Circular Economy is the answer to guarantee its future, both at the level of economic competitiveness and of environmental sustainability. Over the next few years we will see if the objectives of improving recycling levels and developing new more sustainable materials that are able to offer safe, convenient, longer-lasting fresh foods and, at the same time, contribute to solving the problem posed by plastics are met.