Sustainable, cost-efficient, reusable and eco-friendly are buzz words these days. They’re on the radar in the packaging and food industry, as much as anywhere else. Coca-Cola, in its quest for new sustainable forms of packaging, has provided $400,000 to Michigan State University and its School of Packaging. In the UK the grocery store giant, Tesco, is collaborating with a veterinary university in England to “encourage greater academic collaboration over supply chain challenges.” Packager Sealed Air has teamed up with Clemson University in South Carolina to create a teaching, research and service facility.

Packaging can transform the food industry through halal eco-friendly innovations, and Muslim entrepreneurs could very well lead the transformation. The design and development of packaging is a multi-million dollar industry, especially given that packaging impacts the presentation of food products, attracts the consumer’s eye, and facilitates sales. The convenience of superior packaging assists in the safe distribution of a product, its handling, stacking, shelf-life, opening, re-sealing, use, and reuse.


Halal Concerns

What goes into food packaging is of concern to halal consumers. Manufacturers try to gain the largest market share, so they do aim to select packaging that does not violate religious beliefs. However, this is not possible all the time. The halal status of packaging materials must always be verified. Though a plastic container may appear acceptable, the source of some of the ingredients used to create the plastic may be of concern. Often, stearates from animal sources are used in the production of plastic containers. The formation and cutting of metal cans may require the use of oils, which may be derived from animals (Chaudry, 1997). Steel drums could have been used to carry foods containing pork or pork fat, and despite rigorous cleaning, these could retain small amounts and contaminate otherwise halal products. Animal fats can be in the glue used in packaging, and pig hair bristles can be used in production equipment, amongst other concerns. At IFANCA, all aspects of food production and packaging are taken into consideration before a product can be considered halal.

Islamically speaking, wastage isn’t in accordance with the teachings of the faith. A new survey in the UK, for instance, has found that as much as 40% of supermarket food packaging cannot be easily recycled. According to the Local Government Association, “If we had less unnecessary packaging it would cut costs and lead to lower prices at the tills (cash registers). When packaging is sent to landfills, it’s expensive for taxpayers and damaging for the environment. Supermarkets need to up their game so it’s easier for people to do their bit to help the environment.”

The U.S. based Bulk is Green Council intends to increase awareness as to how eco-friendly bulk foods can be. Bulk is Green believes that the availability of more foods in large, in-store containers, from which consumers serve the precise quantities they desire, will help reduce the amount of packaging and food waste as well as keep grocery bills relatively smaller.


Types of Food Packaging

Packaging is mainly categorized into three types; primary, secondary and tertiary. Examples of primary packaging include aseptic packaging, plastic trays, bags, cans, cartons, and flexible packaging. Secondary packaging includes boxes while tertiary packaging could be pallets and wrappers. Primary packaging is the main package that holds the food that is being processed. Secondary packaging combines the primary packages into one box. Tertiary packaging combines all of the secondary packages into one pallet.

Twentieth-century inventions such as glass bottles, cellophane wrap, aluminum foil, and plastics shepherded greater utility and flexibility in food packaging (Lord, 2008). Other 20th century packaging developments, such as packages incorporating anti-microbial and oxygen scavengers, established new precedents for prolonging shelf life and protecting food from environmental influences. Some of the most exciting developments in food packaging involve nanotechnology, the science related to very small materials, which is poised to have a big impact in food packaging materials. With the help of this technology, pathogens, chemicals and toxins can be detected easily. Hence new packaging solutions focus more on food safety (controlling microbial growth, delaying oxidation), product quality (managing volatile flavors and aromas), convenience, and sustainability.


Preserving Food Quality

There are many technologies that utilize packaging to maintain food quality. Top priority is given to the safety of a food product. Oxygen in packages aids the growth of aerobic microbes and molds. Oxidative reactions in packaging also results in unintended odors and flavors and changes in color or nutritional quality. Similarly, moisture in food packages may cause powdered products to form lumps or crisp products to soften, encouraging the growth of microbes. Conversely, too little moisture can result in dehydrated foods.

Oxygen scavengers remove oxygen from food packages, thereby impeding the growth of microbes and preserving the intended flavor and odor of foods. Carbon dioxide emitters suppress microbial growth in products such as meat, poultry, and cheese (Lopez-Rubio et al., 2004). Moisture-control agents suppress water activity, serving to remove fluids from meat products, prevent condensation from fresh produce, and curb the rate of lipid oxidation (Vermeiren et al., 1999).

Many retailers and packaged goods companies request HACCP compliance. Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) is an internationally recognized, systematic and preventative approach to food safety that addresses biological, chemical and physical hazards through anticipatory and preventative action rather than by finished product inspection. Several major food manufacturers do request HACCP compliance from their packaging suppliers.


Packaging Goes Green

What new, eco-friendly innovations are looming on the horizon? Polystyrene remains a popular packaging material and is used as sheets to line boxes for added protection on fragile and temperature sensitive shipments, and is commonly used for hot beverages. Manufacturers opt for clear, energy-efficient and lightweight containers for everything from deli material to fresh fruit and vegetables. There are two reasons for polystyrene’s popularity: it offers a range of environmental benefits such as an increased capacity for recycling, and it is cost effective. Polystyrene packaging is based upon styrene, a naturally occurring substance present in many foods, such as strawberries, nuts and cinnamon. Polystyrene food service foam packaging, in most cases, has an environmental footprint over the lifecycle of the package that is lower than or comparable to alternative packages. A polystyrene foam 16-oz. cup for hot beverages, for example, uses a third less energy, produces a third fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and produces less solid waste than comparable cups. Clear polystyrene containers enable shoppers to see the food being purchased and the condition of the contents (Cirko, 2008). While the term styrofoam is often used to refer to expanded polystyrene, the two materials are completely different.


Novel Biodegradable Developments

Inroads being made towards “greening” packaging include biodegradable and compostable packaging materials. Whey could soon be a prime ingredient in the next wave of biodegradable packaging, according to new research. Pectin and fish skin too were once considered for the same. However experts warn that, “some so-called bio-degradable or compostable plastics are not actually biodegradable in the soil and require specialist treatment that is not widely available. If these materials are not being treated correctly, it makes little sense to use them in the first place.”

A brand new product on the market, EnPlus Rock paper, can be used for packaging needs varying from butter wraps, to packaging board replacement, to thermo-formable trays and blister packaging. Derived from limestone instead of trees, it contains neither acid, alkali or bleach, making it very eco-friendly. It uses no water during its manufacture and also involves low consumption of energy per ton produced. Once disposed, it turns to dust within three years of sitting in a landfill.

Innovations such as “the vacuum packaging of meat to cut out conventional one-size-fits-all thermoformed tray pack usage is one possible step change towards lowering the carbon footprint of processors as it not only cuts down on material but also lowers distribution costs by enabling more units per truck per journey,” according to UK’s Waste and Resources Action Programme. There are also proposals to reconsider formulas to enable the doubling of concentration of juice so that bottle size can be reduced or offering refillable packaging solutions for milk and coffee.