Could the proposed targets of the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation affect food safety and lead to an uptick in food waste? This is the question posed by Professor Fabio Licciardello, professor at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, and member of the Italian Scientific Group for Food Packaging (GSICA), in our latest opinion article.
The EU produces 250 million tonnes of perishable foods, such as milk, juices, nectars and plant-based alternatives, each year. Ensuring that these foods are accessible, safe and nutritious for European consumers is vital.
However, current packaging reuse targets under the proposed EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) could unintentionally jeopardise food safety and generate an increase in food waste. Analysis conducted by the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia on the compatibility of reuse systems for beverages with aseptic technology points to a greater need for policymakers to factor food safety into PPWR reuse measures.
Aseptic packaging is designed for protection
Perishable liquid foods are highly prone to decay, spoil and have a shorter shelf life if not aseptically packed or stored in refrigerated conditions. With European citizens relying on these food items for their daily nutrition, packaging technology plays an important role.
Aseptic packaging and technology consists of filled and sealed sterile containers with sterile products under aseptic conditions. It is a proven solution for perishable liquid foods as it balances long shelf life with taste and nutritional quality, without the need for refrigeration or preservatives. Prolonged shelf life of up to 12 months is achieved through the aseptic process of heat treatment, filling and packaging and is crucial to protect consumers from pathogens and health risks.
Beyond the quality and safety benefits, numerous studies also highlight the environmental suitability of aseptic paper-based beverage cartons which are recyclable and recycled wherever an appropriate infrastructure exists and have been found to score better from a climate-impact perspective when compared to other packaging options for perishable liquid foods.
With food that has a long shelf life, this also means a reduction in the risk of food waste and subsequent environmental impacts. For these reasons, the combination of aseptic filling technology with aseptic beverage cartons is the first choice for EU-based brands producing perishable liquid foods as three-quarters of the milk sold there is packaged in beverage cartons, together with almost two-thirds of juices.
Assessing the compatibility of packaging reuse with aseptic technology
The EU’s proposal for the PPWR aims to reduce packaging waste and make all packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030, in line with the EU Green Deal and the EU Circular Economy Action Plan. However, such reuse and waste targets must be carefully examined as they may threaten the transition to sustainable and resilient food systems. Specifically, the role of packaging in protecting products and reducing food waste must not be underestimated.
Within my teaching and research activity in food packaging at the Department of Life Science of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, in Italy, I recently explored the compatibility of reuse systems for beverages with aseptic technology under different aspects. Based on the scientific findings I have analysed throughout my research, numerous unintended risks and impacts could arise by transforming single-use packaging technology into reusable solutions.
Packaging is more than a containment vessel as its properties affect the food product it contains. This is the case with aseptic packaging which serves to maintain hygiene and quality and extend the shelf life of perishable liquid foods. Thus, we must recognise that by reusing beverage packaging, the packaging’s properties may be affected and this, in turn, would impact the beverage itself.
Harmful effects could include sanitary risks for consumers, reduced shelf life and consequently, heightened environmental impacts. Studies on the reuse of plastic bottles, for example, suggest risks of chemical contamination, food re-contamination, microbial contamination of the plastic material, changes in flavour and quality.
These potential effects are not only very serious for the health of consumers but could also entail more costly and abrasive sanitization procedures and refrigerated storage to guarantee the safety and shelf-life standards of liquid foods. Research shows a significant reduction in global warming potential when glass bottles are reused once, but this benefit is lost with every following reuse due to the increasing impact of bottle transport and cleaning. These measures, therefore, could impact the sustainability of the value chain.
The importance of packaging performance in policy decisions
Food packaging systems have the primary role of food protection and have been developed by the industry to maximize these protective properties and benefits for consumers. Policymakers working towards the PPWR and the overall EU transition to a circular economy should factor the impact of packaging on perishable liquid food safety towards proposed reuse targets. Based on the assessment of scientific literature, reuse is not compatible with aseptic packaging for perishable liquid foods.
In contrast, single-use aseptic packaging ensures food safety and does not undermine sustainability as it minimises food waste, does not rely on refrigeration and is recycled where the appropriate infrastructure is in place. While reuse systems may be an effective solution for other food value chains, the specific packaging needs of perishable liquid foods must be accounted for, so that EU citizens can continue to access high-quality and safe food.
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Also, if you’re interested in packaging sustainability, you will want to attend our Sustainable Packaging Summit in Amsterdam on 14-15 November. The Summit brings together leaders and pioneers from across the industry to align strategically, learn, network, and create a critical mass to accelerate change. You can learn more by clicking here, and you can buy a ticket to attend here.