Everyday packaging innovations can be commercialised when the idea is good and the product can be manufactured in large quantities

The LUT School of Business and Management is conducting research into better packaging solutions. The research is done from the perspective of commercialisation of innovations and business models.

The corona pandemic sky-rocketed the demand for takeaway and individually packaged food in Finland and throughout Europe. Even foods that are not normally packaged were separately packaged for hygiene reasons. The end result was visible in overflowing rubbish bins.

"Demand for packaged products has increased. Time will tell whether the change will be permanent or not," says Henri Hakala, Professor of Entrepreneurship at the LUT School of Business and Management.

Waste from daily food packaging is one of the largest sources of waste. Approximately 26 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated each year in the European Union, of which about 60% is made up of various types of packaging.

The Package Heroes consortium is exploring food packaging solutions that are environmentally-friendly, consumer-friendly and commercially viable. Henri Hakala and his research group focus on how to make packaging innovations an attractive business.

"The food industry and the operators around it are very committed to finding solutions. The societal debate has contributed to making food business operators increasingly aware of the environmental impact," says Researcher Sanne Bor from the LUT School of Business and Management.

However, the road to developing new packaging is not easy. As a rule, the consumer only wants to buy the product, not pay for the packaging.

"If the chosen packaging material raises the price of the product, it must be clearly communicated to the consumer why they are paying more for sustainable packaging," says Bor.

Companies may well be willing to switch to more environmentally friendly packaging materials, but production dependencies such as investments in production and packaging lines are slowing change.

"In order to succeed in commercialising packaging innovations, large volumes are usually required. It is a prerequisite for change, and that is why large-scale cooperation is needed. Without cooperation, small businesses in particular usually rely on existing solutions."

One example of the collaboration that has already taken place is the cooperation between the Package Heroes research project and operators in the food sector that are committed to material efficiency.

The amount of food waste cannot increase

It is important to reduce the amount of waste from food packaging in the future. Plastic is a widely used packaging material because it is inexpensive to make and will preserve the product for a long time.

"Any new packaging solution innovation cannot increase the amount of food waste" Henri Hakala says.

The problem with plastic is that it is hardly recycled in Europe and practices vary from country to country. Packaging plastic ends up in the environment, and not just in developing countries.

"Plastic works well as a protective material and that is why, for example, cardboard packages often have a plastic film inside. But there are promising solutions. For example, I have seen packaging solutions in which materials can easily be pulled apart before being recycled," says Hakala.

In general, layers of different materials make it more difficult to separate the materials and thus recycle them.

Airtight meat packages and other inventive packaging for export

An example of a simple innovation is the brick-like minced meat package already familiar in many stores, where the same amount of meat is packed in a smaller amount of plastic. A completely different route to better material efficiency is multiple use packaging that can be returned against a deposit, similar to the bottle recycling system. The business potential of this idea is being explored in the project together with start-up company Kamupak.

"It is important that innovations focus on product groups that provide large enough volumes. It is clear that we cannot have very many parallel deposit systems," says Hakala.

In Finland there is expertise on how packaging can be done safely and responsibly. According to Hakala, from this expertise there should be potential to develop an export product that could be adopted elsewhere in the world.

"My personal hope is that in the future, the change will be reflected in different, more profitable, more transparent recycling of packaging materials, and a better functioning market for different recycling models," Hakala says.

According to Hakala, resources should also be invested in recycling facilities for separation and utilisation of new materials. This utilisation would also bring new work and business to Finland.

"Personally, I don't see that much more responsibility for recycling could be pushed on consumers before we can profitably recycle the different materials," Hakala says.

The Package Heroes project researches and develops environmentally-friendly, consumer-friendly and commercially viable food packaging solutions. The project, funded by the Strategic Research Council (SRC) at the Academy of Finland, is led by Research Professor Ali Harlin. The research consortium includes LUT University, the Natural Resources Institute Finland, VTT and Åbo Akademi University.

Further information:

Professor Henri Hakala

Tel. +358 440244387, henri.hakala@lut.fi

Researcher Sanne Bor (In English)

Tel. +358 504392393, sanne.bor@lut.fi