Less material input, improved functional properties

Fish and seafood are sensitive products that mostly require packaging for transport and presentation at the retailer’s. Whether simple plastic bags or intelligent case-ready concepts, the packaging should be easy to handle, it should ensure product quality, and it should provide customers with information. Choosing between the numerous packaging options is quite a challenge for manufacturers since today packaging also has to be recyclable and climate-friendly.

The days when the fishmonger wrapped a piece of fresh fish deftly in a sheet of newspaper before handing it to his customer are long gone. Although nothing has really changed with regard to the basic functions of packaging, i.e. to protect goods and products and ensure their safe transport, over the course of time a number of new requirements and functions has been added. What was once merely a kind of protective covering for sensitive products today also has to be hygienic, drip- and odour-proof, offer good insulation, fulfil legally stipulated declaration obligations on the pack contents, and attract the customer’s interest, as well as being environmentally compatible, climate-friendly, and recyclable. This large number of requirements has led to some products being packed not only in simple single packaging but often in double and triple wrappers. Even products for which packaging would not actually be necessary are often in the meantime carefully wrapped, and the packaging welded or sealed. Sometimes it’s almost possible to gain the impression that more effort and care goes into the packaging (and that it is thus worth more) than the product inside… particularly since once the product has been removed the packaging has fulfilled its intended purpose. However, although more and more consumers are questioning the need for this wrapping mania the flood of different trays, folding boxes and cartons, plastic film and bags seems rather to be increasing. In the meantime packaging is part of everyday life in industrialised countries. Whole economic sectors are employed with its development, production and subsequent disposal.

Fish processors and packaging manufacturers take up the challenge and attempt the balancing act between on the one hand fulfilling all the requirements made on product packaging and on the other hand meeting the growing demand for environmental compatibility. Put simply that means reducing packaging volume, enabling as far as possible multi-use of packaging, and using recyclable materials to produce it. The motto “reduce, reuse and recycle” is an apt description of the concept which involves not only the avoidance of packaging waste but also the use of lighter materials with new kinds of improved functional properties. Not only the production of packaging but also its storage, transport and later disposal are a burden on the environment. Manufacturers can choose different packaging materials and make plastic lighter through foaming processes, they can use recycled raw materials, or do without superfluous secondary packaging. But in spite of all these efforts it will, of course, never be possible to do completely without packaging. Everywhere where it is indispensable, however, product developers are working to make packaging more functional, more attractive and more “intelligent” so as to give the products an added value through the type and design of the packaging. This might, for example, be a longer shelf-life, an easy opening mechanism, or the reclosability of the pack, improved freshness protection or the use of sustainable, environmentally compatible packaging materials.

In skin packs a shrink film forms a second skin around the contours of the product and – just as important – it can be pulled off easily to remove the food.

Environmentally friendly non-drip and grease-tight fresh fish packaging made of solid or corrugated fibreboard is, for example, very hygienic and easily disposable. Expanded plastic trays offer optimum thermal insulation and also stand out for their low weight as well as versatile usage options. And trays, tubs and other containers made of aluminium foil or special plastics do not only provide protection during transport: some fish and seafood products can also be cooked in their packaging in the oven or the microwave. Even the wrapping paper which has in the meantime replaced the fishmonger’s newspaper is today almost a high-tech product, for the film-laminated wrapping paper does not only protect the fish but is also tear-resistant, drip-proof, fairly puncture-proof, absolutely hygienic, pliant and flexible.

Product safety is always the top priority of the packaging industry in all its efforts to develop innovative packaging. But at the same time, new food packaging solutions should also lengthen shelf-life, reduce losses and be more sustainable, i.e. make more sparing use of resources. However, not everything that would be technically possible today can be implemented immediately. If the minimum shelf-life of a product, for example, is suddenly lengthened to an unusual extent by means of an innovative packaging a lot of consumers will presumably react with scepticism.

Transparent plastic bags and folding cartons with a window are among the particularly popular packaging types for seafood products in the frozen foods sector.


Demand for specific packaging solutions is increasing

There are two basic application areas of packaging. On the one hand, packaging is needed for the storage and transport of fish products within the chain from the producer to the further processor, sometimes even to the trader, and these packaging solutions usually consist of larger containers such as plastic crates, insulated tubs or barrels. The second application area covers the variety of packaging in which the products are sold to the final customer at the retailer’s. The two areas share some similarities but there are also some very significant differences. Among the similarities are the fact that fish, fish products and seafood must be reliably protected in their packaging so that their quality and integrity is preserved. It goes without saying that all packaging materials that come into contact with the food are actually suitable for this, have been reliably tested and fulfil all legal requirements. The requirements of packaging at the retailer’s are much greater. Sales packaging is intended to attract the customer’s attention, provide information on the product ingredients, its shelf-life or its preparation and at the same time it should be user-friendly, safe, hygienic, and preserve product quality. Whilst customers often only see the attractiveness of a product or its shelf-life, producers and traders also pay attention to the fact that the packaging is not too expensive and thus profitable, that it fits into the company’s merchandise management systems and logistic chains, and that it supports the company image and brands.

The growing number of pre-fabricated and pre-packaged products forces manufacturers to develop more and more new packaging concepts and to look for suitable materials that fulfil the sometimes very special requirements.  Every potential target group has its own preferences, be it catering, home service or gastronomy, street food and the growing take-away business or the retailer or final consumer. These preferences partly coincide, but sometimes also differ quite considerably. The range of options is already immense and it is growing all the time: refrigerated containers, thermoboxes, hard foam and thermoformed packaging, menu trays, flexible tube bags, MAP, steam-tight sealable plastic bags and vacuum skin packs. In the meantime there is not only one but several packaging solutions for nearly every product, be it fresh, chilled or frozen, smoked, acid marinade, filled into the pack hot or cold.

Depending on the application area and intended purpose, packaging manufacturers make use of some very different materials. Among the classic materials in the fish sector are above all aluminium, tinplate and glass which stand out for their special material properties such as strength, food safety and suitability for recycling. Glass, for example, is made of natural domestic raw materials such as quartz sand, sodium carbonate, potash, feldspar and lime and these are available naturally in almost unlimited quantities. Glass is chemically “inert” and in no way influences the flavour of the foods with which it comes into contact. The only disadvantage is really the relatively great weight of glass containers and their susceptibility to breakage. Like glass, paper, cardboard and carton are all based on renewable raw materials, either as primary fibres  from renewable wood or as secondary fibres from recycled waste paper. The advantages of these materials include their relatively low weight but high resilience which offers protection, enables the stacking of the products, and prevents damages during transport. Folding cardboard boxes (FEFCO 0201) made of single layer corrugated or solid cardboard are today the common standard in the packaging sector. Fresh foods are packed, for example in film coated composite cardboard cartons. Moisture-proof insulated cartons made of corrugated or solid cardboard can even be used for road or air transport of fresh fish.


Plastics enable packaging solutions to suit the product

In addition to these traditional materials plastics are of outstanding importance for the packaging of fish and other foods. Polyethylene (PE) accounts for over 30 per cent of global production of plastics. PE is available in a hard (HDPE) and soft (LDPE) variant and is extremely versatile in its usage. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a thermoplastic which is easily formable when heated and can be produced in almost any shape, can also be used for a wide range of applications.

The thermoplastics also include polypropylene (PP) which in its molecular structure is fairly similar to hard polyethylene (HDPE). Like polystyrene (PS), which is known in the fish sector above all from the extremely light polystyrene insulating boxes, polypropylene can also be processed to  form shaped pieces of various kinds which consist of expanded but mainly closed-cell bead foam particles (expanded polypropylene EPP). The EPP particles are usually supplied loose and then poured into foaming machines for processing to shaped parts.

Plastics that can be considered for packaging are usually lightweight, are easy to mould, ensure a long shelf-life of the food, and enable attractive product presentation. Plastic packaging, whether as single or multilayer film, in foamed or dense form, has amazing properties, as the variety of shaped trays, skin packs, barrier shrink film and MAP sealed trays shows. Some plastics even meet demanding thermal requirements and are equally suitable for the deep freeze and the oven. The art is ultimately to find the right material for the intended packaging purpose. Even problems that can occur when opening sealed plastic packaging, for example, (often a source of annoyance in the past) have – at least in theory – now been solved. Easy opening concepts with lasting adhesive seam and zipper-like closing mechanisms make it possible to reclose the pack after opening. Perforated tabs can be opened easily by hand without the use of a knife or sharp scissors.

Packaging under modified atmosphere (MAP) lengthens the product’s shelf-life but the method involves the use of special packaging machines.

Reduction of packaging waste and mindful recycling

The biggest problem with plastics is probably their recycling, as the increasing pollution of the oceans dramatically shows. In spite of this, replacing plastics with paper would hardly be the answer, for both materials have their own advantages with regard to energy and material. The fact that paper and cardboard can be recycled or composted does not automatically mean that they are more environmentally compatible and less detrimental to climate. Paper is heavy and cumbersome, its transport often requires more energy than the production of plastic. Apart from that, toxic chemicals are still used during paper production. Drawing an objective environmental and climate balance must take into consideration all the effects on the environment, from the raw material to emissions, from toxicity to waste.

Like all packaging, plastics can be collected after usage and, once thoroughly sorted, can be reused as a material or at least for energy. The number of techniques with which recyclable fractions of tinplate, aluminium, cartons and various types of plastic (PE, PP, PET, PS) can be separated in sorting plants is almost as high as the variety of available packaging options. But the effort is worthwhile for in Germany alone about 17.8 million tonnes of packaging were collected in 2014. With 2.9 million tonnes, plastics were in second place after paper, cardboard or carton (about 8.1 million tonnes). Some plastics are used to make new packaging or textiles. Even laminated cartons which were long considered a problem can be recycled today. In England empty drink cartons are collected and then sent to Sweden as filling material for gypsum plates.

In order to counteract the rise in packaging volumes and reduce the burden on the environment the EU adopted the 1994 Packaging Directive 94/62/EG which stipulates that at least 55 per cent of all packaging on the market in the EU member states has to be recycled for material recovery. The recycling quotas for the individual materials differ, however: 22.5% of plastics, 50% of metals, 60% each of glass, paper, cardboard and carton.

Changes in consumption behaviour demand new kinds of packaging

Just under half of the packaging waste occurs in the households of private end consumers. The fact that the volume of plastics in this sector is constantly rising is mainly due to the consumers’ changed living conditions which have led to changes in their consumption habits. The share of senior, single, and two party households is increasing. These customer groups buy smaller quantities and portion units which increases packaging consumption. Changing eating habits, above all street food and fast food or the to-go sector and the rising convenience grade of foods and ready meals also impact the quantity of packaging. Out-of-home consumption also leads to increased demand for packaging. In addition, the mail order sector with purchases via the internet is growing – slowly but surely in the fish sector, too. These developments work against the efforts to reduce packaging waste or better still to avoid it altogether. It is very difficult to counteract this trend.

Designers and product developers are constantly working on finding ways of giving packaging new additional “abilities” on top of their original functions of protection and separation. Packaging is today no longer only for keeping the products but it also makes handling, dosing and portioning easier as well. With the right trays and dishes it is today possible to not only present precooked fish meals in an attractive way at the retailer’s but they can also be heated in and eaten directly from the packaging. Even traditional jars with screw lids which play an important role particularly in the fish sector have moved into the focus of innovative designers who are for example equipping the screw top lid with plastic inlets in which powdery, pasty or liquid components such as dips, sauces or other side dishes can be packed separately. This means that the consumer can mix them into the product himself immediately before consumption. These sections of the lid are also suited to the enclosure of recipe inserts and small gimmicks.

Jars of all sizes are classics in the fish and seafood product packaging sector. Glass is chemically “inert” and tasteless and it can also be easily recycled.

New kinds of materials with optimized functional properties at least enable a reduction of packaging in some application fields, or they can make the packaging lighter weight, smaller or thinner or they can replace expensive heavy materials. A good example of this are the skin packs in which a shrinkable film forms a second skin around the contours of the product and – just as important – it can be easily pulled off to remove the food. Flexible plastic packaging such as vacuum bags, ready-to-seal stand-up pouches, flat bags or flat bottom bags with gussets are among the most efficient and most environmentally friendly packaging forms on the market. They are suited to chilled and frozen products, they are non-drip and odour-tight and relatively inexpensive. Since the introduction of metal-laminated films with high barrier properties that are stable and sufficiently puncture-proof, pouches made of this material today even often replace the traditional tin cans.