|Communities of Practice meet virtually – and in person in Thailand|
The IAPRI Community of Practice (CoP) meetings took place in a hybrid format just before the Thai Global Packaging Conference in mid-June, offering a valuable opportunity for participants to clarify their aims, plan future activities, and define areas of co-operation.
The first CoP to meet - some attendees face-to-face in Thailand, others joining online – was Distribution Packaging, chaired by Vincent Rouillard of Victoria University (VU), Australia. During the course of the meeting, he identified several areas which could benefit from greater attention. The first of these was the use of accelerated testing in transport simulation.
“I know that a lot of colleagues around the world have been working on accelerated versus real-time testing,” he said. The question he was interested in was whether this time-compression approach was yielding ‘sensible’ results.
Hiroaki Kitazawa of the NARO food research institute in Japan reported that, because most of the tests he carries out are on more easily-damaged fresh fruit and other produce, he usually runs real-time vibration tests. As Rouillard pointed out, accelerated tests might be too violent for products of this sort.
Secretary General of IAPRI Ed Church said: “We’ve debated this topic for years, but maybe there are other issues which people see as being more urgent.”
Rouillard agreed it was not a question of ‘one size fits all’. “But when you look at some of the new materials that are not the highly-engineered protective foams, we’re going to have to be very careful, because these new materials may not perform as well,” he cautioned.
From Church came the suggestion that the CoP could organise one- or two-hour online symposia every few months on specific topics, with one or two researchers presenting their work, followed by a panel discussion. An enthusiastic Rouillard undertook to work up some single-topic themes to ascertain relevance and interest among CoP members.
One example might be multi-axis testing, he said. In Europe, according to Enrique de la Cruz of Safe Load Testing Technologies, there was interest from industry and from standards organisations. Much of the focus was on stretch-film applications, and on pharmaceutical companies wanting to minimise delays to new product launches, said Church. There were questions, too, about how multi-axis dynamics should be measured, Rouillard added.
Testing for e-commerce packaging, particularly for larger consumer items such as furniture, was a major issue for the University of Monterrey (UDEM), Cristina Guzman reported. Here, test protocols may not even exist, said Rouillard, though Church confirmed that the International Safe Transit Association (ISTA) is understood to be working on omnichannel protocols, which would include e-commerce. There was agreement that this might make a further theme for a standalone online symposium.
Additional areas touched on during the meeting included shock-on-random testing, which Rouillard’s team at VU has been working on, and will shortly publish papers on, and stability and load-security testing. The latter has been emphasised in the EU, in particular, but outside Europe IAPRI members such as Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in the US have also taken this as a focus.
The Packaging and the Consumer CoP online meeting, chaired by Virpi Korhonen of PTR, Finland, consisted largely of three presentations looking at research – and research proposals – in this area.
Renee Wever of Linköping University, Sweden, outlined a couple of preliminary research applications already submitted and awaiting a decision on funding. “We’ve seen a rise in retail concepts where people try to sell unpackaged food, because packaging is so bad for the environment, and so on, but there’s little research into this,” he said. The ‘common sense’ view is that no packaging has less impact than any packaging at all. “But it’s not looking at systems, food waste, and so on.”
Here, he said, concepts include: dedicated stores without single-use packaging (especially plastics); hybrid models, in conventional stores; and delivery-based systems.
One proposal is to work with Karlstad University, also in Sweden, looking at consumer needs from the point of view of whole families, including issues such as transport and food waste. A second proposal, said Wever, is targeting international funding, potentially involving IAPRI members in Sweden, Norway and the US.
The next presentation in the CoP meeting, from UDEM’s Guzman, looked at the growth of e-commerce as a trend over the course of the pandemic. As she had emphasised in the Distribution Packaging CoP meeting, this has affected UDEM’s own packaging laboratory, with different materials and supply chain impacts to analyse and test for.
One problem, she noted, was that consumers did not know how to assess the sustainability of e-commerce channels, typically underestimating – or not even considering – the impacts of transport, while overestimating the part played by packaging materials.
Guzman examined experiential elements, such as personalisation and branding in an e-commerce setting, and went on to look at returnable options. “The question is, are there good reasons for using returnable packaging?” she asked. “Or are we impacting more by carrying out all the reverse logistics?”
Korhonen rounded off the meeting by presenting PTR’s own work carried out as part of the EU SusPak project. A comparison between Finnish and Italian perceptions of sustainable packaging for fresh and takeaway food had been shaped into a series of sessions, she said, aimed at educating consumers about the issues.
The educational sessions included elements such as cultural differences between the two countries and the emphasis given to the various aspects of sustainability, the benefits of different material types, the role of recycling and the impact of transport and logistics.
The Active & Intelligent Packaging (AIP) CoP meeting was chaired by Selcuk Yildirim of ZHAW in Switzerland. He began by revisiting some of the proposals from the last meeting of this particular CoP, notably the idea of working on literature reviews examining certain aspects of AIP, from its sustainability to its safety. There was a suggestion that smaller break-out groups could be constituted to work on specific review areas.
The possibility of designing joint research projects was another key theme, along with options for international funding. “I believe there would be a few funding opportunities,” said Yildirim. “I think, if we can collect that information and communicate it within IAPRI, this could increase the potential benefits of the association.”
Also debated was the possibility of changing the name of the CoP to Food Packaging, rather than just AIP. Some attendees did not see such a change as being a problem, but Guzman queried it. “I think Food Packaging is so broad that we might lose the AIP aspect,” she said. To prevent this happening, Yildirim suggested, the sub-topics to be addressed within the food area could be defined.
When the discussion moved on to teaching, he outlined how Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) could be applied to the AIP area among IAPRI members. Already, said Yildirim, students from three different Zurich universities (including his own) were bringing together disciplines including materials technology, design and consumer perspectives through shared online teaching.
Along with Yildirim at ZHAW, Guzman at UDEM and Marit Kvalvaag Pettersen of Nofima, Norway, agreed that this was an approach which might work for their students, too, either through adaptations to the curriculum or by inviting online guest speakers. Church pointed out that the new University Education CoP was also looking at some of these COIL ideas, but there was widespread agreement that trialling them initially on a bilateral basis could be a good first step.
When Roland ten Klooster of the University of Twente, the Netherlands, introduced the separate topic of how IAPRI could support the scaling up and commercialisation of AIP systems, Yildirim referenced work that had already been carried out in defining barriers to AIP roll-out as part of the international ActInPak project, which ran up to 2018, and which ZHAW had been a part of.
Opening the Sustainable Packaging CoP meeting, this time with rather more participants on-site in Bangkok, chair Carlos Diaz of RIT in the US posed the question: Can barrier packaging and circularity overlap – and if so, how? “The problem is that barrier packaging is almost exclusively multilayer,” he said. “Recyclable, long-shelf-life packaging doesn’t exist, at least at the moment.”
He went on to ask whether monolayer materials (and in particular plastics) could deliver the necessary barrier – especially where surface coating is used, rather than lamination. In theory, Diaz said, even a dramatic shortening of the shelf-life may not be a problem, but it means rethinking the entire supply chain and logistics to ensure a much faster turnaround.
“Back in our 2019 meeting, the Chinese ban on imported ‘recyclables’ had come as a big shock, and we even asked the question: Is this the end of recycling?” he recalled. “But now, in 2022, we’re seeing a huge effort being made by consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies to create demand for recyclables.”
In all of this, Diaz asked, what were the respective roles of: packaging manufacturers; consumers; waste management; governments; non-governmental organisations; and multinational CPG businesses? And was the solution to do with: infrastructure; consumer behaviour; recycling rates; biodegradability; plastics bans; or waste-to-energy (plastics to fuel)?
Taking the example of film-wrapped snack or cereal bars, ten Klooster said he had been involved in analysis of several packages, based on both paper and film. Regarding the films based on a single polymer, he began by saying: “I call them ‘remeltable’ rather than ‘recyclable’.” He went on to list examples, including PE films with a thin barrier layer such as EVOH, given that proportions of 5% or less can be remelted. Barriers with PP might be AlOx or SiOx, and PET films were also common with some sort of barrier coating.
“But if you look at a small bar like that, these pieces of plastics are so small, they will never be sorted in any sort of plant,” he said, pointing out that this was impossible at typical line speeds of 2.5m per second.
Kvalvaag Pettersen of Nofima added that, even though the amounts of barrier material such as EVOH in these structures were relatively small, it was not accurate – or even honest with consumers – to call them ‘mono-material’. In relation to Diaz’s question about solutions, she said these needed to be specific to the country and its infrastructure. “A ban in France on plastics for fruit and veg may not have too much of an impact on food waste,” she said. “But in Norway, it’s completely different.”
The broader question arose about ensuring that all those involved with circularity and genuine sustainability were “on the same page”, and Diaz suggested that the CoP, within IAPRI, could be involved in creating definitions and clarity around some of the key concepts – or, as Guzman suggested, in laying down the “parameters for sustainability”.
For the Sustainable Packaging CoP as for the other three, discussion returned to questions about how the group should communicate, how often it should meet in some sort of online forum, and how its activities can be sustained year-round.