3PL, flexible Packaging

Flexible Packaging: Helping you stay Ahead!

Consumer preferences are changing all over the world. The portion sizes of products are also changing (usually getting smaller, individual sized). The consumer preference towards how the product is stored and consumed is also changing. A lot of food is now consumed while the consumer is mobile, without sitting on a table. There is a growing focus on providing the convenience of use to such consumers. Flexible packaging materials are designed to meet these needs. Products such as reseal-able pouches and twist off packaging for candies (e.g. Halls), where a single unit can be unwrapped without affecting other units are great examples how only a small portion of the product is consumed while keeping the remaining product sealed and fresh for next time.

Flexible packaging is beneficial for the supply chain as well. It consumes less space and is easy to store and transport. Due to such advantages, it is rapidly gaining market share over other packaging options. Its use is growing at such rapid rate that the market for flexible packaging is estimated to be about $350 Billion by 2018. Let’s take a look at some reasons why it is such a rage in Industry.

  1. Lightweight: A flexible package is usually made of thin sheet of plastic polymer. This means it weighs a lot less than usual packaging containers. A classic example for weight comparison is packaged water PET bottle. Over the years the bottle has got thinner and thinner to a point where it can no longer be reduced in thickness. However flexible polymer sheets are even thinner and stronger than current PET bottles. The next logical step for bottled water would be to become a flexible pouch of water. This is already a reality in many parts of the world. Another example is cling film packaging. Fresh food (such as cucumber, broccoli and other vegetables are wrapped in cling film without adding any weight or extra volume. It also keeps the product visible to the customer at all times. A lot of processed food such as cheese is regularly wrapped in flexible packaging so that its appeal to the eye is capitalized. Even for oversized bulk packaging bags (The Flexible Intermediate Bulk containers), flexible material is used for storing and transporting material in large volumes. It is lighter than drums and tanks and easy to transport and manage and provides similar volume and strength.Comp image
  2. Easy printing/branding: Packaging is used as a brand’s marketing canvas. It’s a great platform to catch customer eyeballs and no marketer will miss this opportunity. However with rigidly structured container printing becomes a challenge. The shape, irregular size of the container can pose a challenge to print on the surface of the container, which affects the speed and quality of prints. Many times marketers use external labels in such situations. The labels are printed separately and then affixed to the container (tins and trays) after the material is packed and is ready for shipping. This causes logistical problems. The printing is done by a separate vendor, which requires coordination for the exact requirement, changes in design, the volume of production and mistakes are usually caught after the delivery of label. Flexible material removes this problem to an extent. It can be printed onsite, which means the printing and production run can be customized, designs can be changed quickly and mistakes can be caught early.
  3. Barrier Properties: Many products such as juices, wines, milk and other foods need to be packaged in an oxygen free environment. Flexible polymers are easier to bond with appropriate barrier compound while retaining light weight and flexibility. Other packaging materials such as cans, drums, paper boxes etc need a thicker and separate layer of barrier material (such as aluminum) which increases the costs. Tetra pack packaging is a case in point here. It provides great protection to its contents but the packaging itself is rigid and expensive. Aluminum has been used as a flexible barrier for a long time. However, its use in the recent stand-up packaging makes it vulnerable to cracks and pores which can let air, water pass through. Newer products such as styrene-acrylonitrile address this problem. They are tough even in thin layers and can stay flexible when bonded with polymers.Comp image
  4. Variation in style and dispensing: Packages made from flexible plastic films can be made in virtually any shape. They can be made in pouches, bags, boxes, zip-lock style bags, narrow neck, easy grip pouch, screw top cap pouch or with a laser-score-tear feature or a simple wrap around packaging (cling film). It can be molded into any bag of any shape as well. This flexibility makes the packaging more creative and practical. Imagine a flat water container that fits in a handbag, like a book. It’s already being sold. Along with same, the dispensing of product through packaging can also be done in many ways. For example, the liquid soap packaging fits right in the dispensing machine which connects the valve of the dispenser to the packaging. The right amount of soap is dispensed without making any mess. Small screw-on tops or pierce through straws are equally well suited for flexible pouches.Comp image
  5. Varied sizes: As they are strong and flexible, flexible material can be used to pack very small quantities right up to large bulk material for industrial consumption. The large industrial bags or Flexible Industrial bulk containers (FIBC) are as common as large gunny bags made of the same material and are used to pack air tight materials such as cement.Comp image

Flexible packaging is finding applications in other nonfood industries as well. It is especially well suited for packing clothing material so that it can be rolled to save space and still stay protected from dirt and other environmental elements. In fact, they are especially suitable in the healthcare sector where even a slight tear renders the medicine unusable. Many medicines such as eye drops and injectable medicines are already available in single dose flexible packaging. All you need is a little creativity and you can start reaping the benefits of flexible packaging as well.

Nanotechnology and food packaging: A natural alliance

Although nanotechnology is quite well known, its uptake in the food industry has been slow. The food grown or manufactured using nanotechnology has not gained as wide an acceptance as it was expected to. However, on the packaging side, the story is completely opposite. The nanotechnology based packaging materials are proving to be very successful. They are safe and have additional properties that are beneficial for packaging of food products. As the technology improves, the nano packaging is getting cheaper and its commercial use is expanding rapidly.

What is Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is nothing but working with the material at the molecular level. This technique of manufacturing is used to create very thin layers (few molecules thick or just a few nanometers thick), of complex molecular structures that are not possible using conventional chemical processes. In its more advanced versions, this technology is also working in medicine and healthcare fields to create complex medicines. In the manufacturing industry, Nanotechnology is used to create thin coatings of active and passive materials to provide strong, flexible and inert layers to store volatile and highly reactive liquids and gases, or reacting with only specific substance while remaining inert to others. It is because of these properties, that nanotechnology is of great use in the packaging industry. It is now used in various kinds of packaging, especially in the food industry to extend the life of packaged food.

Nanotechnology in food packaging:

Traditionally the paper, metal (aluminum foils and tins) and plastic based polymer films of various grades are used for food packaging. However, each has its own disadvantages on various fronts, which nanotechnology overcomes. Some of the applications of nanotechnology in food packaging are listed below.

Barrier Packaging: Food material reacted negatively with Oxygen and becomes stale. The only viable solution is to remove all oxygen from the food environment (within the packaging) and prevent any infusion or leakage of oxygen into the packaging. Metal packaging such as tins are airtight, but are expensive and inflexible. Glass packaging is fragile and inflexible. The plastic polymer based packaging material is low in cost and flexible. However, it is slightly permeable to oxygen and other gases. Over time, the oxygen leaks into the packaging and the food get damaged. This is where nanotechnology is helpful. A coating of an impermeable substance which is just a new nanometers in thickness is sufficient to create a packaging that is impermeable to gases while retaining the flexibility of the base material. Typically a thin metal film which is only a few nanometers thick is applied to polyester or polyethylene films to create flexible, impermeable and inert packaging material that increases the shelf life of food by a great deal.

Antimicrobial packaging:

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Some nanomaterial can actively reduce the growth of microorganisms. These substances are applied to the food facing side of the packaging to reduce the growth of pathogens in the food, thus increasing the shelf life of the food. Silver is one such material which is well known for its anti-pathogen properties. With nanotechnology, a very thin layer of silver is coated on the packaging greatly reducing the amount of silver required and thus saving the costs. Other more active and cheaper materials are being investigated for their antibacterial properties under nanostructure conditions. For example, Zinc oxide nanoparticles become antibacterial as their size gets smaller. Chitin, a natural substance found in the shells of marine crustaceans such as Crabs and Shrimps is also effective in fighting pathogens.

Active or smart packaging: Nanotechnology has created possibilities of creating very small electronic components. Researchers are looking at the possibility of applying these nano electronic components onto packaging, which can actively sense and control the environment inside the packaged food. They can alert the consumer when the food starts to decay. It sounds straight out of a sci-fi movie, but it is getting real. Here are some examples of active packaging.

 

Active cooling:. Self-cooling packaging uses chemical and physical processes (such as evaporation) to keep the temperature inside the package cold and thus increase the life of food. Another very interesting technology under development is keeping the package cool by using a thin powered system, which is powered by the very thin photovoltaic cell. The electricity will be used by the thermoelectric system to lower the temperature inside the package. These systems would reduce the need for refrigeration along the supply chain.

Self-healing polymers: Self-healing polymers are making great progress. The packaging made out of such polymer can accommodate small punctures and tears thus reducing the wastage due to damaged packaging.

Nanosensors. Chemical compounds that change color based on the presence of a gas are applied on the inner side of the transparent packaging polymer. As the food goes stale, it emits various gases. This changes the color of the compound which is visible from outside the package indicating that the food has gone stale. The nanotechnology allows the layer of substance to be very thin to maintain transparency, bonded strongly onto the surface of packaging so that it does not mix with food and yet be visible when its color changes.

 

RFID:

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Radio Frequency Identification is already in use today. Advancements in nanotechnology allow for manufacturing of much smaller and much cheaper RFID tags. This will make them more common eventually replacing the bar codes altogether. This will further speed up the logistics processes and reduce the manpower requirement along the supply chain.

Nanotechnology has much to offer to the food industry. It provides for robust, flexible solutions that increase safety. The smart packaging solutions monitor and control the food environment, increasing its life and easing the logistics requirement. The future of the nanotechnology in packaging industry looks lip smacking.

Antimicrobial packaging: What, Why & The Real Benefits

People are increasingly consuming packaged food products. These come in both, cooked and uncooked formats. The shelf life of these products is usually limited by their degradation due to bacterial action present inside them. It is due to these microbes that food rots and get spoiled. It also increases the chances of food borne diseases. If these microbes can be removed or neutralized from the food, it can be stored for very long periods, vastly improving its shelf life. Most of the traditional methods such as air tight packing of food with removal of all air/oxygen or substituting air with nitrogen, achieve the desired effect to some extent, but they alter the taste and aroma of the food. This makes them less desirable.

Anti microbial packaging on the other hand involves an active packing material that act to reduce or inhibit the growth of micro organisms that may be present in the packed food. For example; silver has long been used to reduce the microbial or fungal content in food. The downside of using silver is that it’s quite expensive and can be prohibitive if used in large scale commercial application. This has led to development of other compounds that can achieve similar effect of reducing or inhibiting the growth of bacterial and fungal microorganism in packaged food products. They represent one of the most promising concepts in future of food safety and quality. Active packing system in one where the packing material itself interacts with the food substance to provide desirable effects and enhance the shelf life of the packaged food.

Anti microbial packaging can take several forms

  • Sachets filled with antimicrobial agent, which are added to food packages.
  • Antimicrobial coating onto the polymer surface. i.e application of antimicrobial layer onto plastic surface that is in contact with food.
  • Incorporation of antimicrobial compound directing into the packaging material itself.

 

Of these the first one, i.e the sachets that are either enclosed loose or attached to the wall of packaging are most successful. They absorb the oxygen, water vapour and also emit ethanol vapour, not making the environment inside the packaging inert for any microorganism growth. This reduces the spoilage of the food, such as off-flavour, discolouration and rotting by changing the initial conditions immediately after packing of the food. It also prevents the formation of toxic substances.

 

On the other hand, the antimicrobial layer on the packaging works by releasing an active substance into the food and headspace which actively renders the microbes inert in the food due their affinity to the food particle. The layer is designed to release the active component in a slow controlled manner throughout the designated shelf life of packed food. This type of packaging is slightly more challenging as it involves choosing the right packaging material that can withstand the application of active layer and choosing the right active compound that will not only not react with ingredients in the food, but act against the right set of microbes which have highest probability of being present in the food being packed.

 

The global market for antimicrobial packaging is over 250 billion USD already and is expected to grow at CAGR of 7% over next 5 years. The growth will be primarily driven by active and controlled release packaging (which will consist of enzymes, organic acids etc) which will in turn be driven by rapid rise of packaged food and beverage industry. Further, the advancements in technology will make it possible to apply more complex antimicrobial layers to packaging, increasing the shelf life even more.

 

Following are the key trends that will drive the demand for antimicrobial packaging

 

  • Increased consumption of processed food that is manufactured in factories instead of freshly cooked meals. More processed food will need better packaging for longer storage, especially the out of season food products that need to be stored much longer.
  • Smaller portion sizes requiring large number of individual units in retail market consuming more overall packaging, including antimicrobial packaging.
  • Repackaging of the food (Food not fully consumed once package is opened but stored for consumption at later time) will need antimicrobial packaging that continues to counter the pathogen that enter food once it is opened and exposed to air.
  • Increased awareness about health benefits of food packed in antimicrobial packing, leading to more demand for food packed in such packing, directly by the consumer.
  • Increase in competition, which will lead to cost pressures. Reduction in refrigeration requirement of food will be key attractor to use antimicrobial packaging (especially for organic raw food such as milk, meat etc.)
  • Processing of food across borders requiring longer storage and increasing the risk of foreign contamination. This will require stringent safety measures for the food to reduce the chance of foreign diseases spreading across the border.
  • Increased regulation to maintain health and safety standards of packaged foods by government.
  • Technology advancements, making it possible to use antimicrobial packaging for greater variety of food products, more economically.

 

 

Packaging industry is undergoing a rapid change. New materials are being discovered that are safe and sustainable. Old methods are being rediscovered that are efficient and cost effective. The changing global dynamics are changing the food habits of people globally. Food is being prepared long before it is consumed and far away from where it is being consumed. Retaining the quality and integrity of food in such situation has become essential to stay relevant to the consumer. Antimicrobial packaging serves to enhance the shelf life of food once it is packed and also after the packaging is opened for consumption.

warehouse, 3pl, food waste

6 ways to Reduce Food Wastage in Supply Chain

Each year more than 80 million tons of food is discarded in Europe alone. The overall cost of this wastage is more than 140 billion Euros.  Globally it is estimated that a third of all the food produced, is wasted. Most of this wastage happens before the food item even reaches the market. These figures assume higher significance when more than 750 million people around the world face food insecurity. In countries with abundance of food, people tend to throw away what they do not require or consume. This wastage not only has the environmental impact but it impacts the environment (In terms of energy and resources consumed in producing and packing the food that is thrown away). The Food supply chain along with its three stages i.e. Production, wholesaling and retailing has a significant contribution in this wastage. The cost of disposal of unutilized food adds to the cost of food wasted due reasons such as wrong or bad storage, no demand, wrong transportation, expiry before sale etc . Let us look at some of the ways that the food wastage can be reduced in the supply chain.

  1. Intelligent Packaging. Lot of food is sensitive to environmental factors such as temperature. A smart packing such as Time temperature indicator that tells how long an item has remained at a particular (generally high) temperature can indicate how soon the item will go bad and thus prioritize its sale/consumptions. Many fresh foods (many fruits) respire even after harvest. When packed, they can change the environment inside the packaging due to respiration and thus can go stale. Gas indicators built into packaging can indicate the level of gas harmful to the product. Similarly biosensors can be used to indicate the level of pathogens in the food and transmit the data to control centre. All such indicators and information about the level of freshness of food can be used to prioritize its sale and consumption before it’s spoilt and thus reduce the wastage.
  2. Packaging Considerations. Packaging of the food product has very high impact on it’s shelf life. A vacuum packed meat product stayed fresh without any significant pathogens for long time. Similarly a cling film wrapped cucumber stays fresh for over two weeks, while an unwrapped one loses moisture and becomes dull in 3 to 4 days. Apart from freshness, Fruits and vegetables packed in trays and bags reduce their wastage due to handling anywhere between 5 to 20 percent depending on the food item. Well designed packaging also speeds up the movement of the product, due to easy handling. There is a lot of innovation in packaging that food supply chain companies should look into.
  3. Transportation. Cold transportation is not new. There are active cooling trucks (with actual refrigeration and passive cooling trucks that are basically thermally sealed. Wha’ts interesting however is the temperature gradient inside the trucks, once they are loaded. Most transporters simply ‘stuff’ the truck with products without much thought to placement of product to maximize its shelf life. Even in regular trucks the temperature of food right in the centre of the truck is different than the temperature at periphery. This can have large impact on the life of the product. Even in cold trucks if they are stuffed and the center is not cool enough, the food loaded in the centre has higher chance of being spoiled. Not only the temperature, but the way fruits and vegetables are loaded can have large impact on their life. Can you imagine berries at the bottom and potatoes at the top, going over a bumpy ride?
  4. Increasing decision points in Supply Chain. Most products don’t go from point of production direct to retail shelf. There are multiple hubs and distribution points between the point of production and point of final sale. However with technology, more and more decisions are being centrally. The decision points need to be decentralized and local intelligence specific to the distribution point needs to be utilized for maximum utilization of product. Products with shorter shelf life should be sent to high turnover outlets so that they can be sold before they expire. The principle of ‘First Expiry First out’ should be followed rigorously. Smarter decisions about product movement can be taken locally depending on local conditions such as weather. If the weather is nice and sunny, the demand for barbeque related products will increase. If its cold, the juicy fruits (e.g. watermelon) would be expected to move slowly and can be shipped to other warmer areas.
  5. Cost factors. Food industry often operates on low profit margins. Subsequently all the processes are designed for cost optimization. However lower cost may not always be the best solution. For example, organic food needs to be delivered quickly. The demand for organic food is increasing and it also has higher margin. So supply chain invests a little more in quick delivery of organic food, it can capture both, the volume and the higher margin, thus offsetting the cost and making more money.  A retailer in USA capitalized on this model by making quick deliveries of Organic, less processed oils. The retailed made express deliveries right from the production point and thus maximized the shelf life of oil available to the consumer (about 3-4 months). it’s competitor’s distribution processes itself took 3 to 4 months and thus could not compete.
  6. Production Location. Point of production is also a key factor in supply chain. The closer it is to the consumer, the smaller the chain and lesser the chance of waste. Many organization prefer to have production plants closer to the source of raw material. It reduces the transportation cost of raw material, but increases the waste in subsequent supply chain. With modern technology and transportation options, it is easier to transport bulk raw material to the more distant plant. It also provides for the maximum shelf and storage life once the product is leaves the production plant.

 

Some Food wastage is inevitable. Food will rot, get spoilt and will face some logistical issues. However the amount of food that is wasted currently is unsustainable. The higher environmental cost of this waste will be borne by the next generation; all while there still 700 million hungry people around the globe. If nothing else, the economic cost of the food wastage in itself makes a great business case to stop the wastage as soon as possible.