Most of the food we buy is wrapped, bagged or boxed. This is true of convenience foods like ready meals, and pre-made sandwiches and salads, but also household staples such as milk, bread and fresh fruit and vegetables.
While some packaging are made mostly out of paper and cardboard, many food containers also utilise composites and plastics derived from petrochemicals. But these can be replaced by novel, bio-based alternatives made from renewable natural resources, like potato starch, sugar beet and corn.
This slideshow presents the outcomes of the BioCannDo case study on bio-based food packaging. To assess public awareness and attitudes towards bio-based food packaging materials in the EU, the BioCannDo project conducted consumer focus groups and a workshop with professional stakeholders.
In the workshop, in Italy, 14 people with a professional interest in bio-based products and packaging shared their opinions on the sector and discussed issues consumers and retailers face in relation to food packaging. The majority of the stakeholders represented small businesses, with others working in bio-based education or research.
Three focus groups, with a total of 24 participants, were also conducted in Italy. Consumers discussed bio-based food packaging, and their personal views and expectations of these materials.
The focus groups participants were asked to explain their packaging preferences for three sorts of foods, representing different product types: milk (liquids), tomatoes (fresh produce) and coffee (dry goods).
Price was a decisive factor, if different packaging options were available for the same food.
Habit, brand preference and tradition were also important – people buy what they or their family always have.
Many consumers felt that certain food containers indicated a better quality or healthier product, or influenced the taste of the food. But they had different ideas about the best materials.
Before the focus groups, most participants were not familiar with bio-based products or the bioeconomy.
Once introduced to the concept of bio-based food packaging, consumers expected it to be more expensive than other materials, but thought it was a good idea and said that they would look to buy it in the future.
Bio-based materials were considered less polluting, more sustainable to produce, and more likely to be recyclable and biodegradable than other packaging.
People also believed that bio-based packaging could improve the taste of food and thought that it might be better – healthier – for them.
When discussing bio-based packaging, the stakeholders split into two groups: producers focused on technical issues, while brands and retailers had more personal and image-related concerns.
Manufacturers are concerned about regulation, the availability of raw materials and waste streams at the end of a product’s life. Ultimately, they want to know that they can easily produce and market their products.
Corporate environmental and social responsibility is more important to brands and retailers. They are often making a conscious choice to stock bio-based products and need assurances that they are more environmentally friendly.
They also like labels that effectively communicate the advantages of bio-based products and gave them a 'green' image.
Food packaging producers, brands and retailers all see opportunity in bio-based materials. This is mainly linked to their perceived environmental credentials.
As well as wishing to improve the sustainability of their products, the stakeholders believe there is an exploding market, driven by consumer demand, for environmentally friendly products.
They consider moving away from fossil resources to renewable raw materials to be a positive step.
While they are concerned about complying with regulation, they also think that bio-based materials have the potential to help them comply with newer and future environmentally-conscious regulations, such as requirements to use compostable packaging for food.
Stakeholders were shown and discussed 22 key messages. They felt that consumers need to be most aware of the following:
- "All bio-based food packaging materials must comply with EU health and safety regulations for food-contact materials".
- "If a packaging material cannot be reused, recycling is the preferred end-of-life option".
- "Bio-based does not mean that packaging is automatically biodegradable or compostable. Bio-based only means that a product is made from renewable resources. It can also be biodegradable, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be".
- "Especially the use of agricultural by-products as feedstock can have a positive environmental impact, because they don’t need to be specifically produced".
Most consumers had little knowledge of bio-based food packaging before the focus group. Yet, most expressed a desire to use such products, once they were made aware of them.
This suggests that there is a need to educate people about bio-based food packaging. It is important to explain to consumers what bio-based means, and discuss its benefits and limitations.
Nevertheless, users and experts seem to have different priorities on what information should be conveyed about these products. Not surprisingly, manufacturers tend to focus on technicalities and regulations, while consumers are more interested in value and performance, compared to traditional materials.