What is more emblematic of the holiday season and anniversaries than that airy plastic cushioning we pawed through as kids to get to our favorite present or our favorite food? Bubble wrap, the stuff that is used in shipping, moving and storage to protect our most valuable possessions, was created for an oddly different purpose in mind more than 60 years ago. But today it’s an almost indispensable material in both home and business. It’s also been one of Sealed Air Corp.’s most popular products for decades, as one of the company’s model examples of simple engineering and ingenuity
Sealed Air and shrink wrap
Cryovac, that air-tight wrapping that protects and cushions the turkeys we buy in the supermarket, also serves an important purpose when it comes to highly perishable products: It locks out bacteria. In many cases, it may look like the perfect, transparent method for showcasing that juicy steak or a selection of fresh fruit, but its real benefit, said Ronald Cotterman, Sealed Air’s vice president of sustainability, is its hygienic properties.
“Cryovac was one of the early pioneers in developing [hygienic] solutions for food that would extend the shelf-life of food by basically by removing the air or the oxygen that surrounds that food and then sealing the package under vacuum.” He added that this technique has “led to dramatic increases of the freshness and life of that food.”
Cotterman said that studies conducted in New Zealand in early 2000, where the food-borne bacteria Campylobater is often a problem, showed that using barrier packaging like Cryovac served as an effective way to stop food contamination. The country made a number of changes to its poultry production guidelines, including introducing new packaging requirements.
“Within two years of implementing those guidelines,” which included new hermetically-sealed packaging, Cotterman said, “the rate [of incidence] dropped by over half. So there are many, many studies like this that show where individual countries can implement improved hygiene and packaging standards and see dramatic results.”
But Sealed Air’s Food Care products have another benefit here in the U.S. as well, Cotterman said.
“Within the supply chain … the USDA estimates about 4 percent of poultry is [lost] just because of the limits of their supply chain.” He said hygienic food handling, an adequate cold chain that keeps the product sufficiently cold during transport and sophisticated packaging standards that cut down bacteria exposure is critical to reducing that food loss statistic.
Using packaging to reduce food waste
But the other factor that Sealed Air focuses on, Cotterman explained, is food waste: produce and other products that are discarded at the post-consumer stage because of expiration, spoilage or an overabundance of food. He said understanding consumer perceptions when it comes to food waste has been key to redesigning how the company addresses its packaging procedures.
Researchers tasked with interviewing households in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina and Mexico found some interesting statistics when it came to the perception of food waste and our collective role in reducing its prominence.
Reducing food waste isn’t just dependent on smart buying habits, Cotterman said. It’s also dependent on consumer perception.
“That’s something we probed recently with a consumer survey,” Cotterman continued. In this case, the company surveyed consumers from four countries: the U.S., Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. The results were surprising.
In the U.S., food safety was cited as consumers’ No. 1 concern, and food waste as the second major concern. But when respondents were asked how concerned they were about food waste within their respective households, the food waste stats dropped dramatically.
“Whereas 63 percent of Americans reported that food waste was really important, within their own household, it dropped to 34 percent — a really remarkable shift in perception.”
That shift wasn’t as evident in the responses in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, where consumers seemed to have a more realistic view of the connection between national food waste and their own trash cans. Respondents in Mexico reflected the most pragmatism, with 79 percent expressing concern about the evidence of food waste and 62 percent admitting concern about food that is wasted in their own households. Brazil and Argentina showed a greater disparity with 89/70 percent and 76/42 percent respectively.
With changing demographics here in the U.S. that is shifting toward smaller family size, it makes sense to reexamine the way food is packaged, Cotterman continued. And yet, while households are shrinking, food portions, or what is purchased at the store, “haven’t necessarily kept up with that.”
New packaging alternatives
To address that problem, Sealed Air has come up with new packaging “saddle packs” that allow the consumer to purchase a set number of portions in ready-to-cook amounts, “so that you only open that portion you need.” Cotterman pointed out that it’s become a convenient option for poultry, which is highly susceptible to cross-contamination.
“Most consumers want to purchase their chicken fresh … So, we did a lot of consumer research to figure out that this type of packaging would meet not only convenience [preferences], but would [also] be freezer-ready and reduce waste,” Cotterman said.
A siimilar use of single-portion hermetically sealed packaging is often used for fish, where the servings are sold in a designated number of shrink-wrapped portions. The packaging allows the consumer to choose the number of portions for that night’s dinner, and then pop the rest back in the freezer without having to defrost an entire fish.
He admitted that some consumers may not be happy with having more packaging. But reducing food waste, he argued, “tips the scale in a very favorable way in net reduction and total environmental impact.”
Asked whether Sealed Air envisages moving away from fossil fuels in its packaging materials, he said “very active research” is underway to determine alternative sources for packaging. The company has come up with new biodegradable products for non-food uses, such as molded cushioning made out of food waste to replace some plastic products it makes, but ultimately it raises an important question about the use of food products for non-food purposes. The company has also found ways to reduce the amount of plastics it uses in products and is continuing its research into ways to boost the recyclability of its products in areas where landfills and other recycle depots don’t take #4 plastics.
A bigger challenge, however, is ensuring that the plastic is sterile enough to be recycled. In many cases, Cotterman pointed out, Cryovac materials that have been used on meat and dairy products may not meet the “clean and dry” standards that are necessary for recycling. Another option the company is looking into is converting the plastics to fuel for transportation use.
In keeping with the current focus on sustainable business practices and this month’s COP21 talks, the company has developed its own “big, bold and ambitious” sustainability goals. These goals include attaining a zero-landfill threshold; developing ethical sourcing practices that include a robust research and development process; and ensuring that its products have a social benefit by enhancing livelihoods, reducing cross-contamination and preventing disease in food products. And part of the path to those goals is training employees to serve as social ambassadors in the fight to reduce global food waste.
“We are working different channels,” said Cotterman, to bring about a new thinking when it comes to food security and the critical need to drastically reduce food waste.