SOLVE magazine Issue 01 2020 | Page 21

SUSTAINABILITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT: FOOD PACKAGING The buck stops on a shop shelf near you Is food packaging ruining our environment or harbouring the means to help save it? Food packaging and food waste are uncomfortable travelling companions in an era in which people are awakening to sustainability issues, particularly those issues that many feel should be within personal control. This makes food packaging a popular target of complaint for littering landscapes, clogging up landfill and injuring wildlife. Its partner in crime is food waste, with estimates that up to 40 per cent of food produced by today’s industrialised highimpact agriculture goes uneaten. Both of these issues have been on the receiving end of campaigns for change, including outright bans of some types of packaging, but research is showing that packaging may hold the answer to both problems. Paul Trott, Professor of Innovation Management and Head of the Strategy, Enterprise and Innovation Subject Group, says the key is to use the right packaging in the right ways, even though research shows it is not that simple. Professor Trott and members of his team – including Dr Chris Simms, his former PhD student and now a Reader in Innovation Management and New Product Development – use their knowledge, discoveries and insights to help companies innovate more effectively. This work has allowed them to put food packaging into a different perspective. “There are many examples where a company has been able to reduce its food waste by developing new packaging,” Professor Trott says. “One project concerned soft fruits, such as strawberries and raspberries. They have a short shelf life, and as they mature they produce gases. It’s better to release many of those gases, but not all. Oxygen is best retained. The solution is a plastic film, which has a certain number of microscopic holes of a certain size to release spoilage gases but retain oxygen. A soft fruit company, in collaboration with Marks & Spencer, has now developed a technique for setting the correct number of holes in the film for a specific fruit, potentially doubling the shelf life and greatly reducing spoilage and waste. Similar ‘smart’ packaging can also aid health and hygiene: “For example, very often you now buy a chicken which you cook in its packaging, reducing the risk of bacterial contamination through handling.” The roadblock Professor Trott and his team have undertaken allied research investigating the power relationships in the supply chain. In the food industry, the supply chain primarily comprises the retailer, supplier and foodprocessing factory. Recent research looked at whether retailers encourage or block the development of new products, particularly those that could enhance recycling and reduce waste. The evidence was unambiguous: supermarkets just won’t accept product or packaging innovation if there is a cost. “Suppliers will say, we’ve got lots of new products, we want to do this, we can do that. Retailers will tend to say, no because it will increase the price. Or they’ll say, yes, but we don’t want an increase in price,” Professor Trott says. “Retailers have the power. Ultimately, introducing or not introducing new products becomes their decision because they hold the dominant marketplace position.” Professor Trott and his team gather There are many examples where a company has been able to reduce its food waste by developing new packaging. – Paul Trott PHOTO: 123RF data by speaking directly to companies, large and small, which supply food retailers. “The research is raising issues for industry consideration. Are the retailers too powerful? Should action be taken?” Professor Trott says a study investigated how the food industry develops new products; knowledge that has direct relevance to developing more environmentally sustainable packaging. “It found the amount spent on research, innovation and development in food is tiny – just one per cent of all revenue. Compare this to the automotive industry, which spends approximately six per cent, or the software industry, which spends nine per cent, both of which employ large numbers of scientists and engineers. “By comparison, the food industry is all about processing and manufacturing, playing around perhaps with machinery or tweaking a recipe, and very much trial and error and adaptation.” Professor Trott puts this down to the near total emphasis on cost and, again, this leads back to the supermarkets. The conundrum for companies and the national economy is that food manufacturing is the biggest manufacturing sector in the UK. “You wouldn’t have to increase spending on research and development very much to have a dramatic impact … plus there is overwhelming evidence that firms that invest in R&D and innovation tend to outperform their competitors,” Professor Trott says. “It should be food for thought.” ISSUE 1 / 2020 21