Food safety and environmental sustainability are two of the primary concerns among consumers and food processors regarding food packaging.
Plastic packaging is a key option to protecting food from contamination as it moves through the supply chain from farm to processor to retailer/wholesaler to restaurant or home kitchen. As a material that can be adapted to the needs of particular foods and shipping options – from rigid to flexible packaging --
Plastic also often provides additional shelf life beyond competitive food packaging options. For instance, beef sold in pre-sealed plastic packaging can have a shelf life of 21 days compared to only three days for beef wrapped in traditional butcher paper. Food waste is a significant sustainability challenge and, at this time, plastic food packaging is still a contributor to solutions in food waste reduction.
While, plastic food packaging raises several environmental concerns, including its contribution to pollution and microplastics, greenhouse gas emissions, the potential for chemical leaching into food, resource depletion, and limited recycling rates -- end users continue to value plastic over other materials based on cost and performance.
Packaging suppliers have employed several techniques to improve the environmental profile of their plastic food packaging products in recent years, including:
- incorporating greater amounts of recycled content
- ensuring their plastic packaging is recyclable, with a trend toward monomaterial packaging becoming more prevalent
- light weighting and source reduction
Additionally, bioplastics will play a more significant role in the plastic food packaging market going forward. However, bioplastics must overcome price and scalability issues in order to become truly competitive with conventional plastics.
Opportunities exist for all types of plastic food packaging – from bioplastics to conventional options – if the problem of an insufficient recycling and composting infrastructure is solved.
Food-safe Plastic Innovation
Recent packaging innovations aimed at enhancing food safety include a development by Indian Institute of Technology researchers who harnessed silver nanoparticles and bacterial cellulose to create antimicrobial food packaging that successfully preserved tomatoes for a month without microbial spoilage.
Turkish scientists, on the other hand, formulated a packaging film coated with clay nanotubes infused with antibacterial essential oil, which proved effective in extending the freshness of bananas, tomatoes, and chicken while inhibiting bacterial growth when compared to traditional polyethylene film.
In Kazakhstan, researchers showcased a packaging film featuring an antimicrobial and antioxidant layer derived from chitosan, a naturally occurring sugar, alongside a biodegradable polycaprolactone layer, rendering it more eco-friendly than other alternatives.
Lastly, Harvard University and Singapore's Nanyang Technological University collaborated in April 2022 to devise a corn protein-based packaging with nanoscale fiber meshes designed to detect bacterial enzyme presence and release antimicrobial agents, ultimately enhancing food preservation and shelf life.
The demand for plastic food packaging is projected to grow at a 3.0% annual rate, reaching $36 billion by 2027, making it the dominant and rapidly expanding material in the food packaging industry. Plastic will continue to be the largest of the major food packaging materials – thanks to its versatile nature, low cost, and excellent performance, despite increasing competition from other, more sustainable materials like molded fiber going forward.
Consumers desire safety, shelf life, and convenience for food packaging, and research has found that most consumers look for at least some sort of sustainability in packaging when shopping. Plastic food packaging can find opportunities in options that address these angles.
To learn more about the plastic food packaging industry, consider Freedonia Group’s recently published study, “US Plastic Packaging for Food”.