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Packaging has a role to play in reducing food waste

02 August 2021

Tray sealing can play an important role in reducing food waste argues Tony Burgess

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, around one-third of all food produced goes to waste.

While we are all guilty of wasting food at home, the problem is much wider. From adverse weather and poor harvesting methods to unnecessary stoppages and damage during production, and over-stocking and out of date produce at the retailer, the potential for waste exists throughout the entire supply chain. 

As part of the current environmental debate, food packaging has been met with much criticism. However, it is packaging that has already made a huge contribution to helping to reduce food waste – and it has the capacity to minimise this problem even further. As part of this, partnerships between packaging manufacturers, equipment suppliers and retailers are critical.

Waste reduction
The top-sealed food tray is a perfect example of food waste reduction. The format has met the need for convenience for today’s busy consumers, packing a huge variety of products from fruit and vegetables to fresh meat to ready meals. At the same time, it provides suitable protection on the journey from factory to retailer to home – for example, grapes sold in sealed trays rather than loose bunches can typically reduce waste in stores by over 20%.  
A tray, sealed with a top film, has the ability to inhibit and control the ingress or egress of gases and moisture, reducing deterioration to extend shelf-life. The flexibility of the tray sealing format itself offers the ability to seal an almost limitless variation of different tray materials, shapes and sizes. This includes recent innovations such as ‘snap-packs’, where one half of the pack can be separated from the other, opened and consumed, while the other half remains sealed, with the product still protected and its shelf-life extension method intact. 

This underlines the tray’s ability to deliver effective portion control, from single-serve to family size packs, enabling consumers to buy appropriately and leaving a smaller margin for waste at home.

For a tray to deliver these benefits, an efficient filling and sealing system is vital. Latest tray sealer designs are able to stop operation should they detect a misaligned, mis-filled or overfilled tray entering the seal station. In addition, their ability to connect with upstream and downstream equipment means that should an error occur elsewhere on the production line, the entire line will be automatically stopped to. Prevent unexpected downtimes and preventing unnecessary waste.

To further reduce waste, preservation or shelf-life extension techniques are able to protect the food and maintain its quality and freshness for longer.  

Tray sealing technology plays an important part in this with machines that can offer a variety of seal formats, such as gas flush, hermetic shrink, vacuum and skin packaging, according to different product and preservation requirements. A vital factor for many of these tray sealers is their ability to add and remove these capabilities in line with current market demands. This provides future-proofing that enables manufacturers to quickly respond to trends without the need for further equipment investment.

For packaging to be truly sustainable, it must also deliver protection and preservation while using the minimum amount of material. An example of how tray sealing has made a contribution here is the shift from clam shell and clip-on lid packs to top-sealed trays for soft fruit and other fresh produce, which has led to material savings of up to 45%. 

Advanced tray sealers can also cope with the lighter weight trays that are now being introduced, and as manufacturers explore alternative materials to plastic, many models have the ability to seal different tray types including pulp, foil and the latest fully gas-tight cardboard Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) trays, produced with renewable or recycled cardboard.

Tackling food waste requires actions across the supply chain and the packaging sector, including tray sealing, must continue to play its part.

Tony Burgess is sales director at Proseal.

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