Ingenious inventions will change our lives

A host of alternative packaging is under development which promises to transform the industry, as Brid-Aine Parnell reports


PEARL OF AN IDEA

5.2% forecast annual growth rate for the global rigid plastic packaging market over the next five years

Source: Smithers Pira

The rising demand for bottled water in today’s on-the-go society, and the ongoing substitution of plastic for materials like glass and metal have led to huge growth in the use of rigid plastic containers. Although most of these can be recycled, millions of tonnes end up as landfill. To combat this kind of waste, a scientist in the United States has come up with a novel concept to package liquids, called edible pearls.

Bio-creator Harvard professor David Edwards first introduced the world to his invention, the WikiCell, back in 2010 and has since created start-up WikiFoods, in the US and France, to get the packaging out into the retail world. The company makes the WikiPearl, which draws inspiration from how grape skins behave, to parcel up ice cream, yoghurt and beverages. The pearl can be different flavours to complement the stuff inside, such as a hazelnut skin to house some chocolate ice cream or a coconut skin for a mango filling. For now, ice cream WikiPearls are only sold at the WikiBar in Paris, with promises of yoghurt, cheese and coffee pearls to follow soon.

SOLUBLE FILM

£76bn annual turnover of the UK food and drink manufacturing industry, the single largest manufacturing sector in the country

Source: Food and Drink Federation

If you can’t flavour your packaging, why not just have it melt away? That’s the plan of MonoSol, a manufacturer that has come up with a water-soluble edible packaging. The transparent film dissolves in hot or cold water and is safe to consume along with the contents. It can be made into pouches, sachets or other delivery systems and claims to be both tasteless and odourless. For confidentiality reasons, the firm isn’t keen on revealing exactly what the film is made from, but it will say that it’s a blend of synthetic and natural ingredients that are all food grade.

The company sees the film being particularly useful in industrial food production, where the precise amount of colour, flavouring or fragrance could be added to large quantities of foods, without scooping or measuring, in pre-packed pouches. The technology could also help in large-scale food service when pre-packaged herb and spice mixtures, for example, could be tossed into a Bolognese or a chilli sauce all at once instead of one by one. Products in the pipeline include, coffee and hot chocolate drink sticks, and oatmeal.

KILLER PAPER

6 meals or the equivalent are thrown away by the average UK household every week, costing £12.5bn a year

Source: Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP)

Britons hear plenty about how much food they’re wasting every day, often throwing food from the fridge straight into the bin without it ever touching a plate as they juggle busy lives with sell-by dates. The answer could lie with “killer paper”, a silver, nanoparticle-coated wrap that keeps away the bacteria that spoils food. Researchers from the Bar-Ilan University’s Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials in Israel first published a paper on the subject in the journal of the American Chemical Society, Langmuir.

Silver has long been known as an antibacterial agent and is used in substances such as medical ointments, and kitchen and bathroom cleaners. With scientific progress in nanotechnology, scientists have started to explore using silver nanoparticles to coat everything from metals and plastics to fabrics and paper, creating germ-fighting materials. The “killer paper” developed in Israel was able to protect food from Staphylococcus aureus, a common cause of Staph infections, and E. coli (Escherichia coli), a well-known agent of food poisoning.

HEAT WITHOUT FIRE

31m Americans, particularly men aged 18-34, skip breakfast every day because they don’t feel hungry or have time

Source: NPD

At first glance, self-heating packaging may seem like a bit of a gimmick. After all, how many people need to buy a self-heating can of coffee when there are coffee shops on every corner? But food that heats itself, offering on-the-go convenience, could be of real benefit; think of parents who need hot milk for their babies, kids running late for school or even army personnel in the field.

Enter firms like HeatGenie, whose patent-pending technology has been in development since 2008. In this system, which is a lightweight, self-heating packaging component that can be incorporated into a tin, for example, customers press a button on the bottom of the can to start a chemical reaction between the benign substances aluminium and silica that will get the contents hot in less than two minutes. Best of all, the packaging is recyclable, both after the self-heating is used and before. And, of course, food that can be heated quickly has already proved popular. The Pot Noodle is just one of many quick meals, including rice dishes and porridge, which just need added hot water.

TALKING PACKS

$44.3bn projected overall market value for intelligent packaging solutions in 2017, after rising at a compound annual rate of 5.8%

Source: BCC Research

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags and barcodes have been around on packaging for some time to help track and locate products, and stop counterfeiting of goods like medicines. But the future of intelligent packaging that researchers are now envisioning includes parcels that can “talk” to customers using technologies such as near-field communication (NFC) or even 2D codes that can be printed on images or texts. The HearMeFeelMe project, led by VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland, showed how NFC could be used by the elderly and the visually impaired. Customers could touch their mobile phones on the information code on medical packaging, and have product and dosage information transmitted to their mobiles to be read out to them.

Meanwhile, packaging firm Wipak has been working on Self Talk, 2D codes already used with books and learning media that can be “read” at the point of sale or on the shelf using a special pen. The codes can contain information to be played back both visually and audibly, adding the potential for marketing as well as helpful nutritional or product data.

BIO-PLASTIC

1.52trn barrels of proved global reserves of crude oil in 2012, including more than 29bn barrels in the United States

Source: US Energy Information Administration

Besides the environmental impact of plastics that end up on rubbish dumps, there are also potential problems in their production since they’re made from a finite resource, petroleum. For greener, more efficient and, of course, cheaper plastics, researchers have been trying to come up with ways to make plastic and packaging from other natural sources. Ecovative, which makes packaging and building materials from mushrooms, has been well documented, but there are also projects underway to source plastics from another sustainable source, algae.

In Europe, the EU is researching algae-based polymers through SPLASH – Sustainable PoLymers from Algae Sugars and Hydrocarbons – which held its inaugural meeting late last year. Californian firm Cereplast uses corn, tapioca, potatoes and algae to make plastic resins, and its ranges are already in use in food packaging, and service and consumer packaging industries. The company says recent developments, including legislation in countries around the world to ban the sale of plastic bags, has led to increased demand for its products.