Innovative Packaging trends to avoid Food Loss and facilitate waste reduction

Active and Smart Packaging, new recycling options and packaging system optimization are some of the latest trends featured to avoid food loss and generate waste reduction.

Food waste from manufacturing, food services and catering, retail and wholesale sectors represents a 58% of all food waste generated in the EU, amount responsible for 99 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually – the equivalent of almost 2% of the total EU emissions in 2008 (according to EUROSTAT data). Combined with increases in both population and disposable income, food waste generation is expected to climb up to 126 million tonnes per year by 2020 if no actions are taken.

Food losses can occur at all levels of the whole food chain, from production (agriculture, breeding, etc) to consumer, and can be explained by a number of different causes: biological, technical, environmental but also socio economical. Packaging systems play a key role in food losses prevention; however, packaging itself is a source of waste.

Any assessment regarding the impact of food packaging on the environment must consider the positive benefits of reducing food waste throughout the supply chain. Recent FAO report indicates that about 30% of food production is currently lost generating waste. Inadequate preservation/protection, storage, and transportation have been mentioned as causes of food waste.

Packaging in general and active packaging in particular reduce total waste by extending the shelf-life of food products, thereby extending their usability.
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Considering packaging waste and EUROSTAT data, the amount produced is approximately 77 million tonnes per year. Packed food waste has the disadvantage of including together organic and inorganic fractions that cannot be currently separated and are, therefore, sent to landfill. The inorganic fraction, represented mostly by packaging, can even reach up to 20% of the unit, and it is designed and produced for a single use, with really short lifetime periods. Several actions are being carried out for promoting reuse and recycling, involving companies, national and local authorities as well as citizens.

However, food waste is still a big issue that has not been clearly solved, both for packed food waste (misshapen products, packaging damages or rejection in the quality control processes) and unpacked food waste.

Active Packaging

One of the new R&D trends to solve this issue is the development of Active Packaging technologies, able to extend food shelf life even twice as much as conventional packaging does. These innovative solutions avoid food losses not only in households but also in the industry and commercial sectors. Thanks

to these reductions, active packaging contributes to a smarter management of world limited food resources.

Antimicrobial, antifungal, oxygen, CO2 release are just a few examples of what these agents incorporated in the packaging material release to the product, thus keeping a high quality performance during a longer time and thus, increasing the products´ shelf life and avoiding tons of food waste.

An example of this type of packaging is ITENE´s patent of an active packaging for red meat that extends five more days the meat shelf life, considering as a reference the present solution of the packaged meat in modified atmosphere.
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This new package is able to control, through the release of natural active agents, the microbiological growth, the oxidation and the discoloration of the packaged meat, extending shelf life for the products. The additional packaging costs due to employed active compounds is offset by the extension of the shelf life of the product and therefore by the reduction of losses due to spoilage.


Smart Packaging

Another trend comes from the development of Smart Packaging technologies able to provide valuable information (i.e. not only an uncertain expiration date) to the user and consumer about current product spoilage, thus helping them to make decisions. Colorimetric indicators (labels) are incorporated onto packaging and change their colour to show product freshness level, product exposure to unsuitable temperatures, etc. So these smart indicators give reliable information about foodstuffs to avoid unnecessary food loss along the whole supply chain. I.e. A freshness indicator developed by ITENE applied to a packaging solution for monitoring chicken meat freshness has been developed through the SENSOPACK project. This technology will inform in an easy way about the real shelf life of packed fresh chicken meat. The indicator uses ink that is formulated using a reactive indicating compound, instead of common dyes or pigments. The indicator colour is related to the degree of freshness of the meat product. It encourages product traceability as well as other critical distribution parameters such as temperature abuse, losses of freshness, especially in food packaged products like one able to inform about the food quality or about the real shelf life of each individual product according to their microbial loads and degree of freshness, in order to print longer shelf life on the products.

Detecting counterfeiting as well as any other situation that could affect the content of the package (the product) is a key issue when high value products are distributed, especially when the product integrity is the most valuable property (i.e. complex electronic products, electronic equipment, jewellery).
etiqueta inteligente colorimétrica
ITENE has developed a system that allows to identify when the package has been opened and at which stage of the distribution chain it has happened. Such information will allow companies to design protection strategies or redesign the package or logistics.


Food waste

To describing another featured trend, we can highlight Smart recycling systems, which are able to separate food fractions from packaging in order to make them suitable for a wide range of valorising processes. Food products are usually packed for preserving their properties during the stages of transport, distribution and commercialization. Therefore, food waste not only includes organic fractions but also inorganic components such as plastics, metals, paper or wood. Separating both the inorganic and the organic fraction of food waste currently reveals technical limitations that need to be overcome. Recycling systems able to separate and properly recycle food waste will mean an important reduction of food waste sent to landfill on one hand, and to make it available for new uses, for example, in cattle feed production, on another.

ITENE participates in relevant European projects developing innovative technologies for packaged and unpackaged food waste. I.e. EU project LIFE FOODWASTE TREATMENT collaborating with BiogasFuel, FIAB and IMABE.

An advanced and efficient separation and post-treatment technology, which will allow giving packed and unpacked food, waste different management options away from current incineration and landfill disposal.

Packaging Optimization

Another option for reducing food losses is to assure the safety and the integrity of the packaging system. In this respect, optimising the system container / packaging is essential to ensure the integrity of assets throughout the supply chain. Different testing and methodologies can assure the best quality and safety of packaging in contact with foodstuffs, in accordance with the legislation requirements, and also with the highest quality standards required by the food sector.
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ITENE carries out all kinds of tests in real environments to assess the suitability of packaging materials, cushioning and packaging, simulating the operations performed in the supply chain. In ITENE, wrapped and packaged products are subject to different tests: reading, shock, shock, vibration, stability, … and it even simulates the motion of a test boat pitch and roll. To check its resistance, the package is also tested so to detect phenomena of fatigue and creep.

ITENE also designed trials to obtain data through the use of sensors and to determine the behaviour of materials and packaging to temperature, pressure, humidity, etc.

Finally, different design options are implemented in real environments achieving a food losses reduction of about 10-40%.


The respect for the environment must lead the industrial implementation of all this technologies. Also sustainability assessment of the novel packaging materials, distribution, as well as the technologies developed can provide valuable information to identify and consider new improvement actions. Equilibrium between the solution and its environmental impact must be found since novel solutions may have a contrary effect on the environment than the expected one. Economics is one of the key elements of sustainability together with the social aspects related to consumer acceptance.
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For example, according to the main Directives on Waste and Packaging Waste, prevention is the first action to be considered. The best waste is the one that is not generated.

Conventional materials like plastics, paper, and glass, among others, have reached incredible reduction figures (among the 20-40%) in some applications. Research in new manufacturing packaging technologies has made possible these achievements that were impossible in the past. New additives coming from the nature may help to keep or even overcome mechanical barrier and other interesting properties by being added to the packaging material.

Nanomaterials are an emerging area of knowledge that already has a real market. The organo-clay developed by ITENE for packaging materials, where a nanocomposite is obtained and can be applied in different conventional and biodegradable packaging applications, is one example. As a result, the final material shows better mechanical, thermal, and barrier properties (improvement up to 60% compared to raw material), and different new packaging applications can be developed as well as less material use.

As a conclusion, different options for reducing packaging losses must always be cost-effective, environmental compatible and accepted by the final customers. These three elements are essential to get solutions placed in the market that could help preventing the potential food losses.