Food Packaging Trends and What They Mean For Product Inspection

Around eight million tons of plastic enter our oceans globally every year. With items like plastic bottles taking up to 450 years to biodegrade, it is clear that this level of pollution is unsustainable. Worse still, there is plentiful evidence that microplastics are already entering the human food chain. The realization that plastics are causing permanent environmental harm, is stimulating major social change. With politicians, environmentalists and consumers calling for immediate action, major food brands are urgently seeking alternatives to single-use plastics and reviewing their longer-term packaging policies. However, it is quite difficult to find alternatives that meet the same requirements as plastics.

Packaging is part of a complex process that ensures food is protected, delivered and presented effectively. Due to its versatility, plastic is used almost everywhere when it comes to packaging. Plastic is durable, light weight, low cost, water resistant and requires less energy in manufacturing processes than other materials. In short: plastic meets all the requirements you expect from a good packaging material and replacing it is not that simple.

Alternative packaging materials

Since plastics are harmful to the environment, a material is required that is characterized by exemplary environmental compatibility. Materials that are by-products of food processing and are biodegradable are being looked upon favorably. Examples include wood pulp cellophane, corn PLA (polylactic acid) and bagasse – a residue from sugarcane processing. More traditional alternatives are also being re-assessed: cardboard cartons may replace polystyrene burger boxes, while glass bottles – which have long been recycled – may replace plastic ones. Similarly, recyclable metal foil could be an alternative to plastic film on ready meals.

Whatever the choice from an environmental perspective, the introduction of a new packaging material on the line will inevitably have knock-on effects for other parts of the process: such as selection of production plant or transportation requirements. Plastic is lighter and less prone to damage in transit than glass, for example. This means, when transporting products in glass packaging, additional fuel is required because of the heavier packaging material. In addition, glass is more likely to break than plastics. This could lead to higher food wastage in transit and resulting contamination with glass.

Another consideration is the influence of the new material on packaging design. Can the original size and shape of pack be retained? Will the alternative material be as flexible, or as easy to mould? Will it offer the same transparency properties as plastic film? Can the branding be printed onto it directly, or is a separate label now required? In food applications, there are additional considerations in terms of the hygienic properties of any plastics packaging alternative.

The choice of packaging material influences the inspection process

Food manufacturers invest in product inspection technologies to check that the food they produce is free from physical contamination and conforms to brand and regulatory requirements. In terms of upholding consumer safety, it is important to consider whether product inspection performance is likely to be affected by the selection of non-plastics packaging.

In most applications where the product has been previously packaged in plastic, but the new packaging material makes little or no change to the size and shape of the pack, existing product inspection equipment should require little or no adjustment. The size and format of the product under inspection is far more important than the outer packaging for effective product inspection.

An existing x-ray system that is checking shallow plastic packs may continue to provide excellent results if the packaging changes to shallow card boxes of similar dimensions. However, where the entire pack is redesigned and changes significantly in size and shape – for instance biscuits previously presented in a bag are now packaged in a tall box – there would be implications for the existing product inspection equipment. Indeed, it is likely that in these circumstances, the entire packaging line would need to be reassessed and reconfigured to optimize performance using the new pack design.  

Some replacement packaging choices will raise specific detection challenges. For example, if metal detection is already in place to spot potential contaminants on a ready meal production line, the introduction of a foil lid to replace a plastic one could compromise performance. Essentially, the metal lid may fool the inspection equipment into believing contamination has occurred. In these circumstances, the product could be inspected before the foil lid is added to the package, or it may be necessary to swap metal detection for an x-ray system. However, if the plastic lid is replaced with a wood pulp cellophane, for example, there would be no adverse effect on the metal detection system at all.

Do you know which product inspection solution suits best to your business?