AFC Packaging set out to create plastic-free, recyclable packaging for produce and other foods, but it turns out the company also found a way to reduce food waste.
NOW No Waste Technology, created by AFC Packaging in Illinois and its Italian sister company, Policarta, recently received the 2021 Innovation Award in Food Waste Prevention from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.
Paul Smith, chief business integration officer, says the plastic-free packaging can be flow-wrapped, customized and printed on. Barrier coatings can control humidity and protect produce from sunlight. Yet, the paper packaging is fully recyclable, as certified by Italy's Sistema Aticelca and Western Michigan University.
Usually, food-safe paper packaging is coated with wax or plastic and that results in packaging that cannot be recycled.
"Once you adhere something to the paper, it will never, ever release from the paper. The paper and the other thing—that wax, that plastic—are bonded for life. So that product is not recyclable," Smith says.
But AFC's technology changes that.
"With NOW plastic-free, our packaging technology, we can prep that paper in such a way that you can put a coating on it and when it goes in the recycling stream, it will separate immediately," he says. "The paper will go right through the recycling stream and come out optically clear, without 'stickies,' without any components that aren't paper." The coating simply disintegrates, he adds.
"Stickies" is an industry term for adhesives from envelopes and stickers that can contaminate recycled paper. These impurities are measured in the final product coming out of the recycling stream.
While the cellulose window doesn’t dissolve in water, it comes out of the recycling stream and composts naturally.
Reducing food waste is a bonus
Because consumers are used to purchasing potatoes and carrots in plastic mesh or bags, they tend to believe that produce packaged in paper won't last as long, Smith says. The folks at AFC Packaging weren't sure if that was the case, so they commissioned a study from a third party, ASTRA Innovazione e Sviluppo in Italy.
Researchers there refrigerated at 42.8 degrees Fahrenheit 24 plastic packages of carrots with 24 paper packages of carrots and examined them six times over 15 days, noting packaging integrity, freshness, presence of mold or rot and other features. In a second study, similar groups of carrots were kept at room temperature (68 degrees F) and similar features were measured.
All the carrots were the same variety, from the same lot and the same batch, according to the study. (The study results, written in Italian, are available at showthecertificate.com. New Hope Network used the free version of www.DeepL.com/Translator to translate it to English.)
After 14 days, all of the carrots from paper packaging were tasty, but only 35% of the carrots in plastic packages were, according to the study. "On the whole, the paper package is more appreciated with a score of good, while the plastic one is judged as fair," the researchers wrote.
The packing effects were more pronounced for the carrots kept at room temperature. On the ninth day of the study, the carrots in the paper packaging were dehydrated; 70% were moldy; and 20% of the roots were rotting. As bad as that sounds, 100% of the carrots in plastic packaging had mold and rotting roots.
On day 11 of the study, the carrots in plastic packaging were completely rotted and could no longer be studied, the researchers wrote.
In addition to produce, the NOW No Waste Technology packaging could be used with bakery items, dried pasta, flour and even charcoal—all products that often have plastic-coated packaging, Smith says. But it's not for every product. A food with lots of nuts or oils likely would not have the shelf life that consumers expect.
"We really evaluate every opportunity very carefully. There's some things we can look at like sports bars; the issue is that once you start having a certain amount of oils or things that produce oils—things like nuts—those things can go rancid relatively quickly," Smith says.