News from CRIS: Real-time Science - Plastic & Polymer-based Packaging

February 6, 2024

What is packaging? What does it do?

There are three core purposes of packaging materials:

  1. Protect products from contamination or damage.

  2. Contain and portion products.

  3. Communicate what’s in the packaging to the consumer.

Why is packaging important?

Storage and transportation are required to get food, beverages, and cosmetics from their sources to our homes. There are numerous points in our distribution systems where food and ingredients are stored, processed, packaged, transported, and then make their way into our lives for use.

Packaging keeps our foods, beverages, and cosmetics from encountering substances, pathogens, and contaminants that could potentially cause us harm or cause our foods to spoil prematurely (1).  

What are contaminants?

There are three main contaminant categories:

  1. Natural

  2. Human-made

  3. Human introduced natural contaminants

Natural contaminants consist of plants, fungi, insects, bacteria, viruses, and more.

Human-made contaminants include some pesticides, residues, unwanted by-products like acrylamides (formed naturally during cooking), and environmental pollutants.

Human-introduced natural contaminants typically describe metals or other elements that can make their way onto our foods and water due to human activities like mining.

Is there a legal definition of plastic?

Plastic and polymer-based packaging are materials made from specific polymers designed and optimized to protect the food, beverage, or cosmetic products inside of it.

Plastic and polymer-based packaging includes materials like

Why use plastic and polymer-based packaging? Are there benefits?

Yes, manufacturers use plastic and polymer-based packaging because it offers many features that other materials cannot provide cost-effectively.

  • Lightweight, yet durable: Unlike glass and metal, polymer-based packaging weighs significantly less and doesn’t readily shatter or dent. This makes transportation less expensive and energy-intensive.

  • Protective: Plastic can provide a holistic protective barrier better than other materials like metal, paper, or glass. Without this protective barrier, foods, beverages, and cosmetics may be exposed to more contaminants and other harmful elements like excess light and moisture.

  • Cost-effective: Plastic, overall, remains more accessible and more affordable to manufacture and use than glass, metal, and paper packaging products.

  • Versatile: Plastic has numerous applications and can be molded into nearly any shape to keep the product safe and create usable, attractive designs.

  • Recyclable and reusable: We can recycle and reuse many of the plastics on the market. However, as a society, we have more work to do to reduce plastic pollution.

  • Innovative: Plastic materials allow manufacturers to innovate through technologies like active biofilms and biodegradable materials like polyvinyl alcohol. These technologies can reduce food waste, transportation costs, material use, and more.


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