Pack mentality

The meat industry may soon be able to send its waste plastic packaging trays and film for recycling into high-quality diesel fuel rather than incinerating it or sending it to landfill. 

The revolutionary process could help the industry further reduce its carbon footprint and get closer to tough environment targets, saving thousands of pounds on disposal costs in the process.

Earlier this month, recycling company SITA UK obtained planning permission from Bristol City Council to build an end-of-life plastics-to-diesel plant in Avonmouth, and to double the capacity of a previously approved recycling facility. 

Located at what will be called Bristol Resource Recovery Park, the plant will use ground-breaking technology to convert end-of-life plastic from meat trays and packaging into diesel fuel. A gasification unit will also be built to deal with 100,000t per year of residual waste, and a recycling centre will be able to handle 80,000t of recyclables, such as cans and plastic bottles.

The end-of-life plastics-to-diesel facility would produce around 4.2m litres of specification diesel each year from 6,000t of end-of-life plastic. It is expected that one tonne of plastic will produce 700 litres of full road specification quality diesel and 200 litres of kerosene. Business development manager Phil Holland says low-grade rather than high-grade plastics would be recycled. “The new unit will be able to deal with almost any type of plastic, including polystyrene, polypropylene and polyethylene wrappings and films, but not PET food trays. We’ll be able to take wrappings from abattoirs, subject to those contaminated with blood being decontaminated.”

The company is now also looking at being able to provide a decontamination service. Holland says he would not expect to have to pay for the material as he is effectively providing a disposal service. The new plant is expected to be up and running by late 2012, employing more than 200. A total of 35 vehicles will collect waste from businesses in the Bristol area.

The pioneering technology originated in Australia and Japan, although SITA claims to have improved it to make it commercially viable. It has plans to develop similar plants in other parts of the UK, although no other specific sites have been announced as yet. SITA UK expects 208 staff to be working at the Bristol Resource Recovery Park, with 83 employees relocating from the Bristol area and 125 new jobs created.

The potential use of the proposed new Avonmouth plant by the meat industry fits neatly with the current political momentum to meet targets to reduce packaging and cut food waste, set by the so-called Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing the carbon and wider environmental impact, not just in the meat industry but across the grocery retail sector. Last year, the agreement entered a more ambitious and wider phase two programme. The original Courtauld Commitment’s main aim was to reduce the amount of packaging used; phase two sets manufacturers the challenge of producing ‘smarter’ packaging that can be recycled and reused. 

Recycling initiatives

Christine Walsh, a senior consultant with MLC Consulting Services (MLCSL), says there are lots of initiatives to make packaging more recyclable. “Supermarkets have been putting pressure on their suppliers to reduce the weight of the packaging but to retain its integrity. Although packaging is a waste, it would be a lot more wasteful if it didn’t protect the product and didn’t give the product a longer life. So supermarkets are driving their suppliers both ways.”

Dual challenge to industry

Providing not only recyclable and sustainable packaging but sophisticated packaging that meets the high expectation of marketeers and shoppers is more difficult and challenging for the meat industry than for other food sectors because of two issues, says Walsh: a health issue of keeping the product fresh; and a cosmetic issue, because some shoppers will not buy meat that has been temporarily discoloured by the packaging.

“Manufacturers have to think about both those issues,” she says. “If meat touches the top of the packaging, it can lead to discolouration of a certain part of a steak, for example, and that can be a deterrent for people buying that meat, so the packaging has to be cleverer in the meat industry than in other areas of the food industry.”

She adds that there is a certain risk adversity by supermarkets to make bold changes to the packaging. “On the Continent they have taken those bold steps with lighter weighting and they tend to mount products for display vertically on hooks. We are only slowly moving towards some of these lighter packaging materials. We do have it here — with bacons, salamis and hams — but not usually for bulkier cuts like a pack of steaks where we tend to have the steaks themselves in the bottom of the pack and then the same amount of air above them and then the lid of the pack; so there is between 30% and 50% of fresh air being transported around the country.”

Some countries are using skin packs for steaks, but there is the ongoing issue of discolouration, with meat going darker because of the lack of oxygen. Although the colour quickly comes back when it is opened, there is an initial problem for the shopper in selecting it.

Walsh is appealing for better communication, co-ordination and longer term planning between supermarkets and packaging manufacturers to cut down on the amount of waste generated by the sector. “If there is not good communication and planning between the retailer and supplier, there can be a situation where the supermarket is putting pressure on the manufacturer to change the packaging too quickly. Companies can end up with an awful lot of packaging that doesn’t get used. Certainly when we looked at this issue, we came across a significant number of labels that got chucked out.” This is caused by sudden changes in supermarket product stocking.

“There needs to be more joined-up thinking so that if designs of packaging are being evolved, some consideration is given about what is left in-store,” says Walsh. “Labels are superseded with old labels left in stock. Supermarkets should ask how much packaging and labelling is left over, and schedule the new ones for an appropriate date. Sometimes it may not be possible because of a specific launch, but sometimes it may be possible.”

Developing generic labels that have a multi-function may be a partial answer to this problem. Alternatively development of printing on the packaging rather than on a separate label may cut down on waste and costs with, perhaps, a separate stock of stick-on labels for price changes.

Reusable boxes

One step that some in the industry are now taking is the use of rigid plastic boxes that are reusable and capable of being washed and cleaned, rather than cardboard boxes that get contaminated with blood. Packaging companies and packaging machinery suppliers are rising to the challenge to produce meat packaging that is lighter, more recyclable and has greater sustainability.

Firms should also be looking at innovative types of packaging that preserve the contents longer, so it cuts down on the amount of out-of-date or deteriorated meat that consumers throw away, say experts.

Wider use of skin packs

As a packaging concept, Darfresh may have been around for quite some time, but the recent drive to reduce the amount of packaging has seen more companies take it up and use it across a wider range of products. Multivac UK’s marketing manager Andrew Stark says Darfresh is now being used to pack a wider range of meat and fish products. “To say it is going through a major growth at the moment would be a serious understatement, with major use on fish but also on a lot of poultry and on red meat.” 

The range of products now being packed using the company’s thermoformed Vacuum Skin Pack process has grown significantly. “For example in Marks & Spencer, steaks, veal, gammon steaks, and some pork chops are now all packed in Darfresh,” he says. “The advantages include significantly reduced packaging waste, as the product is on a flat base ‘tray’ with no side walls, and attractive vertical presentation to consumers, with the pack itself displayed upright on the shelf.”

Darfresh also gives a longer shelf-life, significantly longer for beef over modified atmosphere packing, Stark says. The process is now also used to pack various Tesco cooked meats. 
Stark adds that Multivac has done a fair amount of work with retailers on developing skin packing for joints. “But at the moment I think it’s a question of whether they want to go down that route or straight to the thermoformed vacuum shrink pack, like Sainsbury’s and M&S have done. Darfresh has been about a rigid tray with the vacuum formed over the top, but some supermarkets have made the leap directly to the vacuum-pack joint, which is not hugely different to how it was 30 or 40 years ago except then it was using a pre-made bag with a lot of excess material.” 

Modern bags are more efficient and shrink back, so there is virtually no excess packaging whatsoever. The Multivac system is called Formshrink, created by the company in conjunction with Krehalon, and it is said to reduce pack weight by up to 80% on a typical large joint, compared to the traditional semi-rigid, pre-made pod or deep thermoformed pack. M&S, Sainsbury’s and other retailers use the system extensively. “Essentially it is a lightweight flexible vacuum-shrink pack made on a thermoformer,” says Stark. “It’s also got a longer shelf-life, because obviously it’s under vacuum rather than in a modified atmosphere.”

Recent developments

The general trend is towards using lighter-weight films for packaging, but a number of other developments are also under way. 

A relatively new development is the production of thin paper trays to replace some made of plastics. M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose are now using a Multivac paper tray for some products. Produced using a thermoformer the tray’s base material comes from special paper from Flextruss rather than plastic. It does have a plastic coating and it can only be formed to a maximum depth of 25mm, but it uses 70% less plastic. It is laminated because it has to have a gas and water barrier to prevent seepage from products such as hams.

Another developing trend is the all-in-one tray production-and-packing operation. Stark says: “We are working with a number of customers at the moment on a system replacing bought-in pre-made trays, with thermoformed trays or packs that are made on-site. Instead of buying pre-formed trays that have to be transported, sometimes across Europe, and denested on a production line, the tray is made at the point of packing by literally forming it there and then. There are efficiencies and cost savings to be had by doing this.”

Meanwhile, Ishida Europe has launched a high-performance split dual-lane tray packing system that enables manufacturers to create bespoke packing lines for their specific requirements, achieving significant savings in labour, downtime and consumables, the company claims. 

The Ishida Flex-Line comprises a set of integrated modules that fit together to make up a variety of complete, high-efficiency tray packing lines, capable of handling a wide range of applications, including different packaging materials and pack sizes, while delivering speeds of up to 15 cycles per minute. The main Flex-Line modules cover filling, sealing, checking and case-packing. Specific equipment within these includes tray denesters, multihead weighers, tray fillers and sealers, foreign body detection, checkweighers, seal testers, label inspection and end-of-line packing, all of which are tailored to precise product requirements. All units have been designed to work together in terms of product handling, signalling, data sharing, data collection and interfacing.  

One key feature of the Flex-Line is its option to run two different products simultaneously and independently of each other. Those two products can differ in terms of type, size and weight, and also in the type of tray or film used or in the MAP gas mixture. They can be destined for two different end-customers. By sourcing all equipment from a single supplier, each system is fully integrated for maximum efficiency and reliability. The system is also said to be highly space-efficient to boost return on floor space by up to 50% compared with two traditional single-lane systems.

Packaging reduction

As well as producing packaging machines that are faster, more efficient and better at space-saving, and packs that are recyclable, companies are looking to reduce the amount of packaging used.

Thermoformed rigid plastic packaging manufacturer Sharpak says it has eliminated the need for meat pads in its trays with the introduction of padless trays, which use tiny reservoirs and surface tension to preserve moisture levels.

The company says the elimination of pads in its Sharplok branded trays, made of low carbon recycled EcoPET, is more hygienic, better for food quality and eliminates the problem of non-recyclable, non-biodegradable pads ending up in landfill sites. The EcoPET is produced using an entirely closed-loop system, which means that there is no waste plastic from the manufacturing process, as all unused plastic is fed back into the production process.  

“These products are both practical and reduce the environmental impact of meat and poultry packaging from a weight, waste and recycling perspective,” says managing director Andrew Copson. The company is now using a special polypropylene in its bird and portion poultry trays that reduces its reliance on petrochemicals.

As part of its commitment to Courtauld targets, it has reduced its average pack weight by 25% and is now working to ensure that its products are recyclable where possible. A product developed for mushroom punnets last year is being introduced into the meat and poultry markets. Called ‘c-LOW’ the recyclable material is claimed to have a 23% lower carbon footprint than conventional polypropylene. The next generation c-LOW has a material carbon footprint. which is 33% lower than traditional PP, a 10% improvement on the original, says Copson. The company says it has begun to extend use of the product into the meat and poultry markets, and claims it is getting interest from major players in the UK food retail market with its potential to reduce the environmental impact of meat packaging.

Sealing the deal

Although shoppers probably never give a moment’s thought to the quality of the seal between the film and tray of a product, it is vital to the success of packaging. There have been a number of recent developments in this area.

Heat-sealing specialist Proseal has launched a top-of-the-range tray sealer, specially designed for meat and other fast production lines. Called the GT3, it is claimed to incorporate a range of innovative features designed to maximise throughput and minimise downtime, including a pioneering three-dimensional tray-positioning system, and a top speed of more than 180 trays per minute. What is claimed to be a unique three-axis servo-drive tray transfer system helps to maximise tray throughput by automatically adjusting for different tray heights. This eliminates the need for tray height-specific change-parts and means that all height settings can be programmed through the user-friendly touchscreen. Speeds are further increased for the GT3 Twin with a true twin lane feed control that enables products to be fed independently down each lane. 

Proseal’s internet-based secure gateway connection system provides real-time data and error condition support. The system enables engineers to remotely access the touchscreen of each customer’s machine from anywhere in the world, to provide diagnostic support and implement software modifications. The system can also compile machine condition running data, such as packs per minute, temperature settings, seal time and air pressure – all of which can be exported directly into customers’ production monitoring screens. Tool 

handling has been made simple, safe and fast with a ‘Free-Lift’ tool-loading system, enabling tool changes to be carried out in around three minutes, according to Proseal. Downtime is further minimised by the use of quick-change conveyor belts, and an auto-lock film reel holder. For meat applications, the GT3 is available with high-speed gas flushing, with reduced cycle time to maximise throughput. The machine can also be specified with high oxygen gas flushing for red meat.

Proseal also claims its branded EcoSeal patented technology means that seal force can be increased by as much as 190% over conventional sealing machines, while consuming only 30% of the air required for a machine fitted with an equivalent standard pneumatic cylinder. The system has the potential to increase machine productivity through a reduced seal time, it says. EcoSeal can be specified on all new Proseal GT series tray sealing equipment. The system can also be retrofitted to existing models, including the F40 and F45.

Select Bag Sealers recently launched a new manually operated table-top sealer, the TS3-EP, which incorporates a thermal electronic printer allowing complex print formats to be applied to the seal as it performs a tape seal around the neck of a bag. The unit replaces the earlier TS2 Sealer that used a mechanical hot foil printer; the new electronic printer has a large 100 print format memory and it self-updates ‘best before’ and traceability codes chronologically. Two, three or four lines of text can be 
applied with self-updating fields. It is even possible to print the time when the seal was applied to the product for 
added traceability function. Print format changeovers can be completed in just a few seconds rather than minutes. The Leeds-based company says the new 
tray sealer can be used for packing a range of meat products, including frozen meat, chickens, frozen sausages and sausage meat.

Weight reduction a priority

Industry technical experts admit that, given current packaging technology, there is a lot of room for reducing the amount of packaging. The use of recycled materials is important, but weight reduction, while maintaining performance, remains a priority to improve packaging sustainability. The volume of material used can be cut by as much as 50% in a number of applications, with an average reduction of 10% industry-wide, with major UK retailers able to replace trays and lids with 
sealed bags for some of its meat as a 
way forward. 

There are concerns about how far the industry can go, what consumers will accept, and what will be practical. Packaging in sealed bags has greater benefits than just reducing packaging weight; it also has the potential to reduce emissions related to transport and refrigerators along the supply chain, 
and at distribution and retail level 
thanks to reduced pack volumes. Sealed bags are not suitable yet for all types of meat, however.

Not all the onus should be on the manufacturer and the retailer though; the consumer should take some responsibility too. The accepted wisdom in industry circles is that there has to be a balance between using engineering solutions to achieve less food waste and changing buying and consumption habits. Between 30% and 40% of food bought is thrown away, mainly because people buy too much or it spoils before it can be consumed. Educating people to change their behaviour is an equally valid way forward. Packaging solutions are available and can be provided to adapt to more responsible consumer buying and eating patterns. 

At the moment, though, there is something of a chicken-and-egg situation; which comes first, the change in consumer habits or the introduction of different, and potentially more expensive, packaging systems, such as those employing more sealable units within the one pack, for example? 

Heavy cost to industry

The cost to the industry of meeting new targets and developing new technologies is potentially enormous with, in some cases, whole supply chains having to be redesigned to fit in with the changing uses of packaging.

There is also a balance to be struck between demand from retailers for better presentation, consumer expectations about the quality of presentation, and better sustainability and recycling levels. In the case of the meat industry, foam trays are a better product from an environmental point of view, because they weigh less, but the market has largely moved to rigid packaging.

Even so, the packaging part of the meat supply chain only accounts for less than 5% of the total environmental impact of meat production. Current packaging systems are the best they have ever been at preserving and protecting food, preventing food waste and increasing shelf-life. 

The biggest challenge facing manufacturers and retailers is moving 
to greener, carbon-friendly packaging while maintaining what are largely 
non-negotiable current hygiene and shelf-life qualities.


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