The principal roles of food packaging are to protect food products from outside influences and damage, to contain the food, and to provide consumers with ingredient and nutritional information. Traceability, convenience, and tamper indication are secondary functions of increasing importance. The goal of food packaging is to contain food in a cost-effective way that satisfies industry requirements and consumer desires, maintains food safety, and minimizes environmental impact.
Food packaging can retard product deterioration, retain the beneficial effects of processing, extend shelf-life, and maintain or increase the quality and safety of food. In doing so, packaging provides protection from 3 major classes of external influences: chemical, biological, and physical.
Chemical protection minimizes compositional changes triggered by environmental influences such as exposure to gases (typically oxygen), moisture (gain or loss), or light (visible, infrared, or ultraviolet). Many different packaging materials can provide a chemical barrier. Glass and metals provide a nearly absolute barrier to chemical and other environmental agents, but few packages are purely glass or metal since closure devices are added to facilitate both filling and emptying. Closure devices may contain materials that allow minimal levels of permeability. For example, plastic caps have some permeability to gases and vapors, as do the gasket materials used in caps to facilitate closure and in metal can lids to allow sealing after filling. Plastic packaging offers a large range of barrier properties but is generally more permeable than glass or metal.
Biological protection provides a barrier to microorganisms (pathogens and spoiling agents), insects, rodents, and other animals, thereby preventing disease and spoilage. In addition, biological barriers maintain conditions to control senescence (ripening and aging). Such barriers function via a multiplicity of mechanisms, including preventing access to the product, preventing odor transmission, and maintaining the internal environment of the package.
Physical protection shields food from mechanical damage and includes cushioning against the shock and vibration encountered during distribution. Typically developed from paperboard and corrugated materials, physical barriers resist impacts, abrasions, and crushing damage, so they are widely used as shipping containers and as packaging for delicate foods such as eggs and fresh fruits. Appropriate physical packaging also protects consumers from various hazards. For example, child-resistant closures hinder access to potentially dangerous products. In addition, the substitution of plastic packaging for products ranging from shampoo to soda bottles has reduced the danger from broken glass containers.
Containment and food waste reduction
Any assessment of food packaging's impact on the environment must consider the positive benefits of reduced food waste throughout the supply chain. Significant food wastage has been reported in many countries, ranging from 25% for food grain to 50% for fruits and vegetables (FAO 1989). Inadequate preservation/protection, storage, and transportation have been cited as causes of food waste. Packaging reduces total waste by extending the shelf-life of foods, thereby prolonging their usability. Rathje and others (1985) found that the per capita waste generated in Mexico City contained less packaging, more food waste, and one-third more total waste than generated in comparable U.S. cities. In addition, Rathje and others (1985) observed that packaged foods result in 2.5% total waste—as compared to 50% for fresh foods—in part because agricultural by-products collected at the processing plant are used for other purposes while those generated at home are typically discarded. Therefore, packaging may contribute to the reduction of total solid waste.
Marketing and information
A package is the face of a product and often is the only product exposure consumers experience prior to purchase. Consequently, distinctive or innovative packaging can boost sales in a competitive environment. The package may be designed to enhance the product image and/or to differentiate the product from the competition. For example, larger labels may be used to accommodate recipes. Packaging also provides information to the consumer. For example, package labeling satisfies legal requirements for product identification, nutritional value, ingredient declaration, net weight, and manufacturer information. Additionally, the package conveys important information about the product such as cooking instructions, brand identification, and pricing. All of these enhancements may impact waste disposal.
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