Fruit and veg packaging: COVID-19 e-commerce boom inspires shelf life and hygiene innovation
15 Jan 2021 --- Fresh fruit and veg packaging innovation has several core aims, including product protection, shelf life enhancement and hygiene defense. The COVID-19 pandemic and a reinvigorated e-commerce boom are increasing functional packaging’s value, while environmental sustainability issues, like food waste, recyclability and virgin plastic reduction, remain crucial.
PackagingInsights explores the sector’s key themes with leading packaging suppliers DS Smith, Smurfit Kappa, Sealpac, Mondi, and edible coating specialist Sufresca.
“The pandemic had a significant impact on consumers' shopping behaviors. E-commerce is booming, with more consumers buying groceries and meal kits online. This requires customized packaging solutions that also keep fruit and veg fresh,” outlines Teresa Del Re, marketing director at DS Smith.
As home food delivery demand surged during social lockdowns, DS Smith showcased its design expertise with the customized “direct box” for Belgian supermarket Delhaize.
Meanwhile, Jurgita Girzadiene, sustainability manager at Smurfit Kappa Europe, notes the EU Single Use Plastics Directive’s (SUPD) 3 July 2021 deadline is forcing member states to tax or find alternatives to SUPD-classified packaging, including plastic fruit and veg punnets.
“Changing consumers’ demands and legislation gives us an opportunity to focus on the role paper-based packaging can play versus plastic,” she explains.
“Lately, with the COVID-19 situation and greater hygiene awareness shaping consumer requirements, this discussion becomes more important, especially as more fruits and vegetables are sold pre-packed.”
In 2020, Smurfit Kappa brought to market its “From Farm to Fork” principle, based around growing fruit and veg without plastic film using its AgroPaper and BanaBags, harvesting without plastic trays, and portioning to consumers in paper-based punnets.
COVID-19-induced supply chain disruptions, epitomized by December’s UK-France border blockade amid the new virus variant outbreak, have reinvigorated the drive for shelf life-enhancing food packaging.
As highly perishable commodities, fruit and veg require packaging protection to avoid spoilage during the rigors of supply chain and home delivery transportation.
“Fit-for-purpose packaging helps fruit and veg reach the consumer in a secure and undamaged way, prolonging the shelf life. Our paper-based punnets are adapted to the size needed, as our portfolio is developed to fit the specific needs of our customer, the supply chain and changing consumer needs,” highlights Girzadiene at Smurfit Kappa.
Using plastics sparingly but effectively, Sealpac offers perforated fresh produce lidding films, which can be pre-perforated in advance (one size fits all) or custom-perforated on its packaging equipment.
“By combining on-line laser perforation with a reclosable tray, our so-called PerfoLid system, we can increase shelf life not only at retail but after the tray has been opened by the consumer,” outlines Marcel Veenstra, marketing & communications manager at Sealpac.
“The main challenge is to find a sustainable packaging system that still guarantees the longest shelf life. In other words: as much plastic as necessary, as little as possible. What is the sense in reducing plastic for the benefit of the environment if it leads to more food waste?”
The Germany-based company is propelling Baumann Vertriebs, a fresh berry producer, toward virgin plastic reductions using an automated recycled PET tray system.
In corrugated solutions, DS Smith offers water resistance and other barriers to enhance fresh fruit and veg shelf life and saleability. UK supermarket Waitrose and organic Romanian vegetable producer Biofresh Banatare are among those benefiting from the protective punnets.
Likewise, Mondi is collaborating with organic Bavarian farm BIOhof Kirchweidach on eco-friendly packaging for organic tomatoes. The 100 percent recyclable Coral Tray mitigates food waste and includes a lid made of recycled corrugated board.
The consumer packaging giant is also teaming up with Cartro Mexican corrugated packager to deliver strong and humidity-resistant boxes, enabling the long-distance transport of avocados. The recyclable box weighs 18 percent less than the existing solution and is paraffin-free.
Edible barrier coatings
In bio-based and invisible barrier protection, Sufresca is pioneering edible coatings that prolong the shelf life of high-demand fruit and veg products several weeks, effective from harvest application to the point of consumption.
Farm-to-fork freshness is crucial as nearly half of all fruit and veg produced globally are wasted each year, according to the UN.
The coatings maintain effectiveness under different environmental conditions, including ambient temperatures and relative humidity. In the age of booming home delivery, Sufresca’s solutions are a natural fit for e-commerce.
“Sufresca makes use of common, non-expensive and biodegradable ingredients, already established in the food industry. Likewise, production is a straightforward and simple process, making our products extremely affordable,” explains Efrat Ferri, the company’s CEO.
“Even though Sufresca’s coatings may be consumed safely, and in any case, coating martial left on the coated commodity is of minuscule and benign amount, they are also washable. They provide a beautiful appearance and are transparent, tasteless and odorless.”
To regulate optimal gas exchange between the fruit and its environment, the coating is characterized by “chaotic structure,” imitating the natural cuticle of the fruit or veg.
“That way, the fruit surface is partially sealed without suffocating the produce and accumulation of off-flavors over time,” details Ferri.
Sufresca’s technology portfolio boasts numerous coatings, including its unique film for bulbs, such as garlic and onion.
Recyclable insulation packs
DS Smith identifies rising online demand for perishable groceries as an opportunity to establish fully recyclable thermal insulation packs in the sector.
The company’s research reveals European consumers plan to continue or increase buying groceries online (62%) and order home meal kits (49%) post-pandemic.
“In 2020, many businesses suddenly needed to adapt their e-commerce model to meet a steep demand increase for home deliveries and subscription solutions. Based on this fast evolution, I predict an exciting year ahead, with emerging ways to serve consumers through e-commerce and packaging playing a central role,” anticipates Del Re at DS Smith.
To meet the environmental challenges presented by e-commerce growth, DS Smith and TemperPack partnered on ClimaCell, a thermal insulation barrier for temperature-sensitive groceries. The solution is recyclable in paper recycling streams and replaces typically unrecyclable expanded polystyrene foam.
DS Smith also developed an emergency provision delivery box as demand for safer home delivery surged during March’s COVID-19 spread. In line with social distancing and self-isolation guidelines, the new boxes can be stacked in delivery vans and dropped off to vulnerable consumers while supporting worker safety.
Heightened hygiene concerns
Another pandemic impact is increased consumer hygiene concern. New research commissioned by DS Smith revealed more than one in three (33%) European consumers wash or disinfect all loose items, including fruit and veg, and 12 percent now avoid buying loose, unpacked goods (22% in Finland and 19% in the UK).
In response, DS Smith released a host of innovative packaging designs, including paper-board boxes and punnets, preventing consumers from touching the fruit and veg before deciding what to buy. For example, the Ecovete range in Spain offers cardboard protective packs with multiple closing and sealing possibilities.
Moreover, DS Smith and Touchguard are developing a range of antimicrobial e-commerce cardboard packaging to protect consumers against potentially harmful bacteria. DS Smith is finalizing the technology’s rollout, commercially available at scale in the coming months across its global footprint.
“Another growing trend is ‘locally produced,’” Del Re continues. “New research commissioned by DS Smith across 12 European markets shows it has become more important to 40 percent of adults that the products they buy are ‘produced in my country’ since the start of the pandemic.”
“Consumers also expect more transparency from retailers and producers about the fruit and veg they buy, such as where they are produced and how fresh they really are,” she concludes.
By Joshua Poole
To contact our editorial team please email us at email@example.com
Subscribe now to receive the latest news directly into your inbox.