Reducing the environmental footprint of food packaging and ensuring that quality is maintained is sustainable packaging system that is important for Nofima’s scientists.

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Wenche Aale Hægermark  

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“Our studies show that it is possible to optain similar quality and shelf life for chicken fillet products when they are packed in recyclable packaging made from recycled plastic compared to conventional and nonrecyclable plastic materials”, says Nofima Senior Scientist Marit Kvalvåg Pettersen.

She has been leading the project and the research in the ReducePack innovation project, and responsible for the packaging trials where Nofima’s experts and Norsk Kylling AS have tested and compared recyclable packaging materials with more complex materials.

The same quality

They packed and stored chicken leg fillets in two different types of trays. The leg fillets were packed at the same time and under identical conditions. One tray was a monomaterial, i.e. it consists of only one type of plastic (polymer). The other tray consists of different types of plastic, called multilayer.

The advantage of multilayer packaging is that plastics with different properties can be combined, resulting in very good barriers against gases such as oxygen. The disadvantage is that they cannot be mechanically recycled.

“We stored the fillets for up to 16 days and performed relevant microbiological analyses after 7, 12, and 16 days. We investigated the development of typically spoilage bacteria. There were no significant differences between thigh fillets packaged in mono-materials and thigh fillets packaged in multilayer packaging”, says Marit.

She adds that these are promising results in terms of replacing nonrecyclable food packaging with food packaging that is both recyclable and can contain recycled plastic without compromising the food quality and shelf life.

Key sustainability measures

Marit adds that these are promising results in terms of replacing food packaging that cannot be recycled with food packaging that is both recyclable and can consist of recycled plastic Using recycled and recyclable packaging is an important ambition for the participants in ReducePack.

“100% of our packaging will be made of recyclable material. We will achieve this without compromising quality, food safety or increasing food waste. We are well underway and are proud of our collaboration with Nofima in ReducePack, which further contributes to achieving our goals”, says Hilde Talseth, Director of Sustainable Innovation at Norsk Kylling.

Facts about materials used in the studies

The recyclable plastic materials used in this experiment were Mono APET or Mono rPET type. Mono rPET are materials that consist of both recycled plastic and recyclable.

In the ReducePack project’s chicken fillet packaging trials, materials from participating packaging suppliers have been tested. It includes materials from Berry, Bewi, Døvigen and Wipak.

Durability and consumer preferences

Both researchers, the food industry and groceries are concerned that reducing plastic consumption and switching to more environmentally friendly packaging materials should not affect the quality or durability of the food. Equally, it is interesting to know more about what consumers think.

Researchers, the food industry and the grocery industry are all concerned that reducing plastic consumption and switching to more environmentally friendly packaging materials should not affect the quality or shelf life of food. Nevertheless, it is interesting to know more about what consumers think.

In addition to a large consumer test, ReducePack has also carried out a smaller store test in two Rema 1000 stores. The aim was to find out whether reduced shelf life resulted in increased wastage in stores. The test took place over a total of four weeks. Packages of chicken thigh fillets (600 grams) at the fresh produce counter had different labelling:

  • Option 1: Standard label, with reduced stated shelf life
  • Option 2: Standard label, with reduced shelf life and additional label marked “New packaging with reduced plastic. The plastic can be recycled.”

For the first two weeks, option 1 was available in the two Rema-1000 stores. For the next two weeks, option 2 was available. Sales and wastage were registered throughout the period.

The results showed that the reduced shelf life did not affect waste in stores. All packages were sold, and the majority within three to four days. Thus, it was not possible to draw any conclusions about the significance of the additional label.

In addition to the wastage survey, the researchers wanted to gain more knowledge about consumers’ preferences. Therefore, they interviewed and showed three different packaging options to customers who were going to buy chicken thigh fillets. In addition to the above options, customers also had the opportunity to choose a package with a standard label and normal shelf life.

Among the customers interviewed, just over half (53 per cent) chose chicken thigh fillets in the packaging with the label “New packaging with reduced plastic. The plastic is recyclable”, and 90 percent of these stated that they chose this packaging because of the additional information on the label. The other 10 percent chose based on the appearance of the chicken.

13 percent of the customers chose packaging with the longest shelf life, and for 57 per cent of these, the expiry date was decisive for the choice, while about 35 per cent cited the appearance of the chicken fillet as the reason. All in all, only 9% of those requested were driven by the longest shelf life in their product selection. This even though a whopping 75% look at the expiry date when buying fresh chicken fillet.

The results of the store interviews confirm previous findings from a larger online study with over 300 consumers in Oslo, Trondheim and Tromsø, which showed that 80% prepare fresh chicken fillet 0-4 days after purchase and over 15% freeze after purchase for later use.

“The results from both the store interviews and the online survey are consistent; both indicate that a shorter shelf life of 4 days is within the window of opportunity and maintains high consumer acceptance,” says Senior Scientist Valérie Lengard Almli at Nofima. She has led consumer research at ReducePack.

Environmental benefits of recycling

Recycling plastic material has several advantages:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions are reduced because less material is sent for incineration
  • The recycling process has lower greenhouse gas emissions than combustion
  • Recycled material can replace virgin plastic.

However, this assumes that the recycled material is used so that it replaces the use of virgin material.

“Using mono-materials is a good strategy to facilitate recyclable of the material. At the same time, it is important that the person designing a material knows the waste market for material recycling, to ensure that the material is actually recycled when designing for this purpose,” says Simon Saxegård, researcher at Norsus.

The research in ReducePack shows that the use of a large proportion of rPET in food packaging is a good and safe strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the packaging itself. Having said this, even lower greenhouse gas emissions are achieved by using recycled material which can in turn be recycled. This provides a climate-related synergy effect for the entire recycling system because it helps to ensure that a material is recycled multiple times.

Reduced amount of material has a great effect

Reducing the amount of material also helps to reduce environmental impacts. It can be done by reducing the packaging size or plastic thickness.

“The research in ReducePack shows that by using thinner PET material, which provides a 10% weight reduction, we can reduce our environmental impact by 10 percent. A reduced material weight is thus just as important a part of environmentally friendly product design,” says Simon.

However, the most important thing is that the packaging protects the food as well as before, so that food waste does not increase.

Facts about the research

The experiments were carried out in the innovation project ReducePack, which is funded by the Research Council of Norway and participating companies. The packaging trials were carried out both in the Nofima packaging hall, which is part of the Food Pilot Plant on Campus Ås, and at Norsk Kylling.

ReducePack will end in 2022. The project’s goal is to reduce plastic consumption and the environmental challenges associated with plastic. At the same time, the function of packaging must be safeguarded: to preserve food quality and avoid or reduce food waste.

Participating companies are BAMA (project owner), Norsk Kylling, Grilstad, Mills, Moltzau, Wipak, Døvigen, Berry Packaging, Bewi, FoodTech and Lexit. Research partners are in addition to Nofima, Lund University and Norsus. The project also has a reference group consisting of the Packaging Association, Green Dot Norway and Romerike Avfallsforedling (ROAF), the Norwegian Retailers’ Environment Fund and Avfall Norway.