The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has calculated that each citizen of the European Union throws away an average of 179 kilos of perfectly good food per year. In fact, in the EU, an estimated 20% of the total food produced is lost or wasted. The past year, during the pandemic, the situation became especially concerning, as delays, restrictions and lockdown meant that tonnes of produce were going bad before even reaching the shops, let alone consumers.
As part of the European Parliament’s 2017 Circular Economy Action Plan, all EU member states have agreed that food waste should be cut by 50% by 2030. Yet at the same time, major changes are being made in the regulations on plastic packaging, including food packaging, under which all packaging is required to be recyclable by 2030.
Combined with the growing environmental awareness of consumers, which has gone hand in hand with an increased demand for more sustainable packaging, brand owners and food packaging producers are facing considerable challenges for the coming years.
A three-year European project designed to address the need for sustainable and recyclable packaging solutions - that at the same time could positively impact the reduction of food waste - was therefore put in place. The project, called Refucoat, sought to develop packaging that was both recyclable and could maintain the barrier properties that help protect packaged food, explained Lorena Rodríguez Garrido, a packaging researcher at the Spanish plastics technology centre AIMPLAS, the scientific coordinator of the project. “Current packaging has a complex multilayer structure and is made from non-renewable sources. It provides all the protective functions but is difficult and expensive to recycle.” Refucoat aimed to replace current packaging with more sustainable, better-performing alternatives.
When it ended in October 2020, the project had yielded a number of important results. Specifically, innovative, efficient food packaging systems were developed using renewable, recyclable materials - polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) and polyglycolide (PGA) - which were found able to replace conventional fossil-fuel-based materials, without compromising performance.
Three different bio-based active packaging systems were created, specifically designed to package fresh chicken meat, cereals and snacks.
One of the project’s biggest breakthroughs was the formulation of bacteriophage-based coatings able to considerably reduce the proliferation of Salmonella bacteria in chicken breast samples packaged in a modified atmosphere. The project successfully addressed one of the problems faced by conventional barrier packaging: in order to protect food, packaging must be made up of complex multilayer structures that are either difficult or costly to recycle. All the packaging systems developed during the project are recyclable and/or compostable.
Additionally, the researchers not only developed new meat trays that were found to extend the shelf life of fresh chicken meat products made from PHA based on low-quality flour, they also established an efficient production process for polyglycolide (PGA), a fully biodegradable material with excellent water barrier properties, opening the door for food packaging applications. PGA had previously been too expensive for use in that area.
The project ended after successfully validating the new packaging structures and comparing their performance with metallised packaging for non-biological applications currently used for industrial products. Tests were also carried out to compare the products’ shelf life and biodegradability with those of current conventional packaging on the market