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Plastic Packaging for Food and the Science of Shelf Life


Today’s consumer is more aware than ever of plastics' impact on our planet. Commercial food producers and retailers have heard these demands and have sought ways to reduce the use of plastic food packaging. 

While some companies have tried using different materials, many opt to keep the plastic packaging. This post will explore the science behind why plastic is the preferred material for packaging and how innovative food packaging can help keep food fresh longer.


Types of Plastic Packaging and How They Are Used

There are various plastic containers commercial food producers can use to package and protect their products. Here are a few of the most common commercial applications for plastic food containers:

  • #1 PET – This type of plastic is used for grab-and-go food containers, cookie trays, bottles for condiments, nut butters, and cooking oils. It is typically one of the most transparent plastics, great for showing off the food inside. By repelling microorganisms, this type of plastic keeps food fresh longer. It’s also durable and is resistant to corroding, providing a superior barrier against contaminants and moisture.
  • #2 HDPE – This type of plastic has less clarity and is often used for milk bottles, ice cream containers, and plastic bags. Because it is resistant to moisture, it’s often used for storing liquids. It’s also heat resistant, making it dishwasher safe. HDPE is prone to cracking, is flammable, and does not bond well with other food-grade plastics, which could be a factor in some applications.
  • #5 PP (polypropylene) – This plastic has a higher melting point, making it great for storing microwaveable dishes, yogurt, and ice cream. However, it is still flammable and is susceptible to UV degradation and oxidation. In addition, PP can be clear, opaque or come in a wide variety of colors, giving commercial food producers the opportunity to stand out on the shelf.

Plastic Packaging Advantages Over Other Materials

Because of the popularity of single-use plastics in recent decades, there have been calls to reduce the use of plastic overall and increase recycling. Some have even called for the elimination of plastic packaging. However, many in the environmental community have acknowledged this is not a feasible option for several reasons.

  • Limited resources – If commercial food producers were to switch from plastic packaging to other materials, such as cardboard or glass, there would be a massive increase in demand for these materials, potentially leading to material price increases and material shortages.
  • Effectiveness – Plastic has many benefits (see below) and is known for being an effective material for keeping food secure and fresh. Other materials are less effective at achieving these objectives.
  • Other climate impacts – When assessing the climate impact of food packaging, you must consider the product's entire life cycle. At Lacerta, we use a life cycle assessment tool to calculate the environmental impact of your packaging. Other studies of packaging materials show there may not be climate benefits to using other materials, especially if plastics are recycled.

Scientific Benefits of Plastic Packaging for Food Products

Plastic can be a superior material when packaging food for many reasons. Besides being lightweight and strong, other science-based benefits make plastic a superior choice when packaging food.

  • Air Tight – Whether using a formed plastic lid or film seal, plastic food packaging can be designed to keep air out, keeping food fresh longer.
  • Water Tight – In addition to keeping air out, innovative packaging designs can protect food from outside liquids and keep food locked tightly inside to prevent leaks. 
  • Extends shelf life – Plastic packaging locks in prepared foods and can extend the shelf life of many foods, reducing food waste. In the case of produce, plastic prevents spoilage due to ethylene gasses and keeps ethylene-emitting fruits and vegetables from spoiling other produce.
  • Malleable – The chemical formula of different plastics impacts its malleability and strength, making it a versatile option depending on your application. For example, plastic containers can be designed to include thermoformed sections to keep different foods separate.
  • Non-Permeable – Permeability refers to the rate at which molecules (such as oxygen) can pass through a material. Packaging requires a low permeability rate for oxygen and water to keep food fresh. 
  • Tamper-Resistant – Food safety is a concern for consumers. Plastic packaging for food is not only durable for keeping food intact, but it also provides a tamper-resistant barrier, protecting food from human interference. Modern plastic packaging designs include a variety of sealing mechanisms, from tear-away seals to film sealing, that help consumers feel confident their food is sealed and safe.

The Science of Sustainable Packaging 

Sustainable packaging in the plastic packaging market refers to recyclable or made with recycled materials. Plastic packaging made with 100% virgin plastic, such as PET, can be recycled and used in other products. The plastic must be collected, sorted by plastic type, cleaned, and then melted before it can be used again. Plastic containers can be made with 100% recycled plastic or a lower percentage. For example, Lacerta's sustainable plastic packaging is made with up to 50% recycled plastic.

Commercial food producers are among the many companies today searching for more sustainable packaging options. Because most virgin plastic is made from fossil fuels, plastic that is not recycled can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Making containers from recycled plastic has two benefits: it keeps plastics out of landfills and uses less energy to produce containers.

While overall plastic packaging provides a superior option for packaging food, addressing environmental concerns is important. That’s why Lacerta has taken a scientific, closed-loop approach to plastic packaging, investing in life cycle assessment (LCA) software that takes a holistic, data-based approach to developing more sustainable products. 


How Your Packaging Manufacturer Can Help 

Design is a key component of any packaging. When working with an experienced vendor and innovative food design team, you can extend the shelf-life of your products and boost shelf appeal. At Lacerta, we have 30 years of expertise in food packaging to help your products shine on the shelf.

We’d love to show you what we do best. For a closer look at our products, request a sample.


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