The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a change in the way customers eat out. Home deliveries and takeaways have become and continue to be the main mode of food consumption. As packaging becomes increasingly important, it becomes even more imperative to talk about sustainability and packaging in food delivery.
In our recent webinar, we spoke to Tapan Vaidya, CEO PJP Investments, Kim Thompson, Owner and Managing Director at Raw Coffee Company, Dr. Mike Cheetham, Global Business Director at Hotpack Global and Dr. Hessa Jaffar Hassan Ali, Head of Product Registration, Dubai Municipality about sustainability and packaging in food delivery. The webinar discussed an interesting history of packaging materials, the importance and role of good packaging, different kinds of packaging available, hygiene practices while packing food to deliver and a lot more.
Here is an excerpt from the webinar.
Historically, mankind consumed food where it was found. There was no real requirement of packing and carrying things, nor for storage or transportation. When small needs came up, nature provided leaves, shells, etc. Later, containers were fashioned from natural materials such as hollowed logs, grasses, etc. As pores and chemical compounds were discovered, metals and pottery were developed. This led to other packaging forms. This early progress has snowballed into a humongous evolution that we are witnessing today.
Importance of proper packaging in food delivery
One of the first advances in storing food was perhap controlling the temperature because the key factors are that food is damaged by bacteria, it dries out and loses its moisture content. So the refrigerator became one of the first advances in food preservation because of the way it regulated the temperature. Then we gradually moved to the freezers because freezing again controls bacterial growth. With freezers, food could last many days without the use of any chemical agent. After that, it was said that there are certain packaging materials available which would allow you to store food outside of the fridge and store it on the shelves because sustainability in food is obviously about the shelf life. We want it to last a long time at home, in the supermarket, etc. Even now, with all the technology, there is a massive quantity of food in the UAE that is thrown away from the supermarkets. It’s not even recycled and used for animal feed, it’s simply thrown away. So the industry has reacted with a number of materials and technologies to provide everything from plastic in paper, aluminium and most recently, in the last 10 years, biodegradable materials. These transitions are advancing all the time.
The role of good packaging
“I own a coffee roasting business and we like to look at coffee as a fresh product so it’s not something we want to see sitting on a shelf. 14 years ago, when we started the business, there wasn’t much packaging material available for us. We wanted the product to stay fresh. But fresh coffee oxidises so you often see a valve on the coffee bag. That is to let out the air. Then again, you don’t want to cut all the nitrogen and you don’t want the air to come back in because it degrades the coffee very fast as does moisture. For us, temperature control, moisture and air were priorities,” says Kim Thompson, Owner and Managing Director at Raw Coffee Company. Kim has only recently moved into offering food from her cafe inside the roastery and says her learning curve has been very steep because she decided not to use single-use plastic for any type of packaging at all. Kim believes that the world we have lived in for the last 18 months has demanded delivery as bringing people into the cafe wasn’t simple. The company spent a lot of time investigating and trying to find the right packaging partners that would look after the quality of the food so that the first impression when the customer opened would be right. Infact, the first thing a customer will see in this case is the packaging so Kim believes it is her responsibility to look after the temperature control and the moisture and everything so that the food quality will remain good. “There has been so much advancement in this field. We were not just cost-driven. We were looking for the best solution that would also be good for the environment. This only deepened our learning curve,” says Kim.
The perfect packaging also differs from food to food. At Papa John’s, the main product is pizza which has to be boxed. So all efforts are focussed on that one product of packaging - pizza boxes.
Dr. Hessa Jaffar Hassan Ali, Head of Product Registration, Dubai Municipality says, “In one of our control programs, we are controlling food contact materials. We call them FCMs. These have an impact in our everyday lives. We find food already in contact with these FCMs or we are using packaging intended to come in contact with food. For example,storage boxes, kids snack boxes, etc. So we can say it’s one of the main programs in our department that we should ensure their safety by many measures. We are registering these FCMs and we request the manufacturer or the brand owner to provide us with regulatory requirements. We have a market surveillance during shipment imports all over UAE, especially Dubai. Additionally, in marketing and trading of these FCMs, we check their safety. We do this by drawing some samples for testing to ensure they are still safe and as per the specifications. All this is done before approval.”
Kinds of packaging available
The initial type of packaging used was plastics. There are a number of plastics used in the industry. “The early products that we saw were polystyrene which is not an eco-friendly product by any means. There are significant moves to get rid of polystyrene now and there are a wide variety of alternatives to it. The major harm posed by polystyrene is that it is not easily recycled. After this product came polypropylene and polyethylene. The advantage of the latter alternatives is that they are recyclable. One of the big things that we need to talk about is recycling because it is alright to have biodegradable products. In our opinion, the UAE has a long way to go in terms of recycling. The machines that we buy are the best in the world. We have 12 factories full of machines but with recyclable plastics, a machine can take 80 percent of recyclable content but we can’t buy it. The UAE and the other gulf regions have a long way to go to provide these materials for the plastics. We can take it, but we cannot buy it. We are having to use virgin materials,” says Dr. Mike Cheetham, Global Business Director at Hotpack Global.
For a long time, plastic remained the most widely used packaging material but recently, with more and more eco-awareness people are moving to paper products. Aluminium is also an excellent material because it is highly recyclable and can be used for takeaways as we know. There is a whole new generation of eco products. We are also seeing bio coatings which are being used. We are now able to give paper products the properties of plastic products with these special coatings. There is also PLA, a product which was developed to be halfway between plastic and paper. It’s gone out of fashion now for a number of reasons. But what we are seeing now is a new generation of paper products that have some properties of plastic. For example, they have oxygen barriers, aroma barriers, they can be nitrogen filled, etc. These are advancing at the pace of knots. More recently, in the past few weeks, we saw breaks being put on green products.
Kim uses craft paper on the outside with an aluminium layer on the inside and a valve. She currently has about 10 different samples that she is considering at the moment to rebrand. As she evaluates different packaging options, she is having to come across many different terminologies that are spanning the market. She also has paper takeaway food products and bamboo cutlery.
Many new materials in food packaging are being tested. The amount of testing in food packaging products is overwhelming. However, buyers need to be aware of what they should be looking for in terms of certifications. There are all kinds of certificates around if you want environment friendly products and if we look at draft reports, you’ll be able to understand what kind of certifications must be sought after.
Hygiene practices while packing food to deliver
One of Dubai Municipality’s big responsibility is to approve the chemicals that are used in food processing areas or even food or even substances that are in direct contact with food during processing. These include machinery parts, cutting boards, etc. All these should be cleaned, sanitized by using some chemicals that will not have any harmful effect on the food or it will not migrate to the food.
There is a high level of risk assessment that goes into approving these chemicals. The Municipality ensures that it asks for the safety assessment of every product to make sure it is food grade, and that it is safe to be used in these critical areas. This safety assessment report is usually provided by the NSF. There are many other practices in terms of food safety that are responsible for maintaining the highest standards of food safety. But speaking of chemicals in particular, during product evaluation, the Dubai Municipality checks the ingredients of the product as well. Some chemicals are allowed to be used in this area but if we are talking about direct disinfection of food like vegetables and fruit wash, bleaching or chlorine base can be corrosive so they are not approved by the Dubai Municipality.
This article is a transcript of our webinar, “Sustainability and Packaging in Food Delivery”. To access the full webinar, please scan the QR Code https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fnw932pi-U