How to develop safe, suitable and sustainable packaging

BY DAVID WRIGHT | TECHNICAL SPECIALIST - PACKAGING

27 November 2023

 

By taking an integrated approach to analytical testing, it is possible to develop food packaging that ticks every box. Here’s what you need to know.

 

Woman hand pulling packaging off of a supermarket shelf

 

The right fit

 

Switching to more planet-friendly packaging is a priority for the food industry, but these new materials need to do more than simply support green pledges. They must also meet a long list of practical requirements and comply with the latest legislation.


From product safety, integrity and shelf life to durability and recyclability, you need to know that the chosen packaging option is fully fit for purpose. The only way to be sure is to carry out a tailored testing strategy designed to evaluate the key properties that contribute to its performance. 


While there’s no-one-size fits all approach - each type of packaging material will require different testing techniques - understanding the value and relevance of different analytical methods is a good place to start. 

Chemical & migration testing

 

Demonstrating that the packaging material is safe to use as a Food Contact Material (FCM) is essential - both to safeguard consumers and meet strict regulatory guidelines. This involves carrying out detailed analysis to test for the presence and migration of substances potentially hazardous to health.

 

This generally means demonstrating that they don’t transfer into - or onto - the food and accumulate at levels considered toxic. It’s also worth noting that although chemical testing is mandated, other substances used in packaging materials are not yet subject to the same rules - but still demand attention:

 

 

  • Intentionally added substances (IAS): Restricted and subject to strict limits
  • Non intentionally added substances (NIAS): Restricted and subject to strict limits
  • Nanoparticles: Must be absent or present at levels that aren’t a significant risk to health
  • Allergens: Products must be labelled correctly, both for presence and potential contact
  • Novel materials: Must be inactive or non-migratory.

 

 

 

Physical & mechanical testing


Testing the physical and mechanical properties of a new packaging material will answer important questions about its performance during handling, transit and storage. Given that even the smallest of holes can result in microbial spoilage, you need to be confident that it will maintain product integrity right up to the point of consumption.

 
So rather than relying on visual inspection systems, which can overlook tiny defects that are too small to see but large enough to cause problems, specific analytical techniques offer an added layer of security. 

 

And there are commercial advantages too. Measuring frictional characteristics between the packaging material and any surface it’s likely to come into contact with (including its own), for instance, has important implications for filling speed and machine wear. While analysing the strength of packaging seals under different conditions can help you optimise the production line and potentially avoid costly downtime due to packaging failure.


You can even use this analytical data to inform computer-based modelling systems to reliably predict how different prototypes will behave in real life – before committing to one solution. 


Of course, the consumer will be the ultimate judge. So it’s well worth using wider mechanical techniques to investigate the user experience, such as how easy packaging is to open, reseal and empty.  After all, less waste means greater sustainably gains.  

Shelf-life


The material you choose for primary packaging acts as a barrier against oxygen, water vapour and other volatiles that can damage product quality. So the rate and impact of these transmissions needs to be measured.  


As a minimum, shelf-life testing should determine the number of viable microorganisms present (known as bioburden), as well as the sensory attributes considered critical to consumer perception of quality. By repeating these measurements at regular intervals and cross referencing with wider packaging data, it’s possible to track and explain unwanted changes in product quality.

It’s also important that these studies reflect relevant storage conditions. It’s not unusual for a global product to be subject to extreme aridity, high humidity and temperatures ranging from 40◦C to below zero. While this is rarely a problem for traditional thermoplastics, when it comes to card, paper and the new generation of biopolymers it’s a completely different story. These materials, like many food stuffs, are highly influenced by different storage conditions so need to be thoroughly evaluated.

 

This is also the time to identify and avoid two potentially damaging wider issues. Over packaging, where excessive amounts of packaging material are used to achieve unnecessarily high barrier properties. And under packaging that’s so ineffective the product it’s supposed to protect spoils before the end of shelf life.  

 

 

 

After life


Of course, one of the biggest questions is how will your packaging impact the environment once it has served its purpose?  With consumer concern accelerating and the regulatory landscape fragmented, analytical data can provide valuable information on a range of issues to support your sustainability journey.

 

  • Recyclability: Revolves around demonstrating if a packaging material can be separated from a mixed waste stream, with different tests for plastics, composite materials and blended recylates.
  • Microplastic shedding: Widely anticipated to be the subject of future legislation, specific analytical techniques are used to investigate if packaging will break down into microplastics (less than 5mm) and nanoplastics (less than 20 micrometers in size) over time.
  • Biodegradability: Although no clear definition or parameters are yet in place, several tests can find out if a material is compostable within prescribed timescales and conditions.
  • Compostability: Certification schemes require testing for chemical substances harmful to the environment, many of which are the same or similar to those covered by food and FCM regulations.

 

How can RSSL help?

 

Could your packaging could use a safety or sustainability upgrade? If so our expert team can help you make an informed decision about your next packaging solution. For advice now click through or fill out the form below.

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