A new type of plastic packaging for fruits and vegetables, made out of a recyclable tray and a folding, returnable base was this year’s winner of the IF Design Award 2013, one of the most prestigious international awards for quality and excellence in industrial design. The design and project were created by the National Institute of Technology (INT) in Rio de Janeiro, which received the award promoted by iF International Forum Design, an organization based in Hannover, Germany. The new packaging is a solution for fruit and vegetable waste, which stands at about 40% in Brazil according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). These food items never make it to the consumer’s table mainly because inadequate packaging damages them and fails to preserve their integrity. The INT’s plastic trays come in several shapes, as a result of 3D scanning with special cameras that determine the best storage conditions for the various types and sizes of fruits included in the project: persimmons, mangoes, strawberries and papayas.
The base, which can be folded and mounted with a simple movement, facilitates logistics and reduces assembly time in comparison with conventional crates. The available sizes fit the shipping pallets used in Brazil and Europe, adapting the solution for use both in Brazil’s domestic market and in the countries to which it exports these products. According to designer and project leader Luiz Carlos Motta, the intended goal of INT, an organization under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI), is to transfer the technology to industries interested in producing this type of packaging. “We are working in partnership with processing industries and their preference is to use a licensing system,” he says. The project was supported by the Technology Fund (Funtec) of the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) and was conducted in partnership with the Food Agroindustry division of Embrapa in the city of Guaratiba (state of Rio de Janeiro) along with the Institute of Macromolecules at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).
The INT’s innovation is just one of several technological solutions in packaging created in recent years by Brazilian companies and research institutes. The list is extensive and includes packaging made from recyclable biopolymers, easy-close systems, alternative closing systems, high gas barrier plastic films, and specially designed can shapes. In essence, they are all meant to enhance safety, convenience and practicality for consumers, in addition to affording better protection for the packed contents and minimizing environmental impact. Brazil is currently the world’s seventh largest global market for packaging products, with net revenues of R$46.1 billion in 2012, a 30% increase over the preceding five years. In the world ranking, the country is outdone only by the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France, and Canada. Industry specialists estimate that within three years, Brazil will surpass Canada and France to take fifth place. Until then, the industry is expected to grow an average 6.2% per year, faster than most nations at the head of the list.
The booming growth of Brazil’s packaging industry, comprised of roughly 1,100 companies that employ a total of almost 225,000 people — most of them in the plastic, paper and cardboard segments — is explained by a range of factors, principal among them the improved economic scenario and increased income of the general population, a strong driving force in the Brazilian consumer goods market. “Innovation is a vital factor in the segment’s growth,” affirms Maurício Groke, president of the Brazilian Packaging Association (Abre). According to him, in order to grow, packaging companies that operate in Brazil have been making strategic use of consumer-oriented design. “We need to develop creative solutions that enhance the design of packaging products and innovate their production processes,” Groke says.
Brazil finds itself in the global chain of packaging products; evidence of this is the presence of nearly half of the world’s 45 largest packing companies in the country. “This confirms the good technological level of the packaging products used in the country,” says food engineer Claire Sarantópoulos, a researcher at the Packaging Technology Center (Cetea) of the Food Technology Institute (Ital) in the city of Campinas, an organization under the São Paulo State Department of Agriculture and Supply. Even so, the variety of packages found in Brazil, according to the researcher, is still limited to the profile of the local market, where large volumes have low added value. “We have high-technology products like the aluminum cans used for beverages, the high barrier plastic films used for preserving food, and post-consumer recyclable PET bottles. However, some trends for the future are still rarely seen in Brazil, such as more sophisticated easy-open systems, active packs and smart packs — which control gas levels and moisture around fruits or that include oxygen absorbers to preserve food and beverages for longer periods — as well as other traceability technologies like radio-frequency identification tags.”
Sarantópoulos believes that the segment is gaining increasing importance to consumer goods industries. “Packaging systems are vital in an efficient production chain because they enhance product quality and safety,” she says. “The competitiveness of companies is largely associated with optimization and innovation in their packaging.” Cetea has coordinated a project in the Sectoral Consortia for Research and Innovation (Consitec) program, funded by FAPESP. The Associative Consortium to Promote Technological Research in the Packaging Industry, headed by Ital director Luis Fernando Ceribelli Madi, was conducted between 2003 and 2010, aimed at supporting the technological development of packaging for food products through research at companies that manufacture or use them. “The project enabled an interaction with over 100 packaging manufacturers and users through partnerships in technology development projects, technology consultancies, analytical services, and training programs,” says Sarantópoulos.
One of the most advanced innovations mentioned by Claire Sarantópoulos is available in the product portfolio of Brasilata, one of Brazil’s leading manufacturers of steel cans. In 2004, the company introduced a can for powdered food products like milk, coffee, and cocoa, featuring a new closing system. The solution, called Ploc Off, received several awards in Brazil and abroad, including the Brazilian Packaging Award in the Food category, and was considered one of the best Brazilian innovations in a survey published by business magazine Exame. According to Brasilata, Ploc Off seals cans 30 times better after they are first opened. This feature makes them a good choice for gradually consumed products that are used repeatedly, like cocoa mixes and instant coffees. The closing mechanism, which is comprised of a seal and a plastic lid, is also more competitively priced than the conventional system consisting of an aluminum seal capped by a plastic lid. “The Ploc Off closing system offers manufacturers a more competitive option because it eliminates the need for a crimping machine in the food packing process,” says João Vicente Tuma, director of Brasilata’s Food Division. Crimping machines close metallic containers by folding their upper rims. Despite its many advantages, Ploc Off is found on only a few products so far.
Another innovation by Brasilata — which is based in the state of São Paulo and has factories in the states of Pernambuco, Goiás, and Rio Grande do Sul — is the Plus closing system for paint cans. In April 2013, the company celebrated the product’s first billion units sold. Its innovative feature is its mechanical locking system, patented in Brazil and in leading international markets like the United States, the European Union, Japan, and China. Until the end of the 20th century, paint was sold in cans that used the traditional friction-based closing system. In mid-1995, Brasilata surprised the market by presenting its new Plus system for cylindrical cans, offering several benefits. In addition to better withstanding internal pressure, shocks, blows, and even drops, the Plus closing system also requires fewer raw materials to make and allows increased assembly line speed when filling cans. For consumers, it facilitates gradual use of the paint inside because it assures a hermetic seal and hence better preservation of the product. According to the company, ever since paint cans with Plus lids were released, a total of 14,000 metric tons of steel have been saved, which also means 21,000 fewer metric tons of iron ore and 6,400 metric tons less of coal consumed. In addition, the cans are 100% post-consumer recyclable — after use, they are returned to their initial condition with no deterioration.
Reduced environmental impact and responsible production are increasingly taken into account when companies develop new packaging products. “Sustainability across the entire production chain has reached a point of no return,” says Sarantópoulos from Cetea. According to the food engineer, packaging manufacturers are investing in products and processes that save energy, use fewer natural resources (water and materials), produce lower emissions throughout the production chain, and extend product shelf life. Producing lighter-weight packages is one of the main ways to reduce natural resource consumption. Another is using renewable raw materials.
The latter was the path chosen by Braskem, Brazil’s largest petrochemical company, which debuted its green polyethylene in 2010. Manufactured from ethylene obtained from sugarcane ethanol, the material is already being used in yogurt containers, caps for aseptic milk cartons, and hygiene and beauty product packs, among other products. According to Braskem, green polyethylene has a positive environmental balance because it encompasses a complete production chain that removes up to 2.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere for each metric ton of final product. The petrochemical company’s green plastic is exported to other countries, with Europe consuming 50% of the 200,000 metric tons produced per year. The market for this product is huge, as conventional polyethylene produced from fossil fuels is the most abundantly consumed plastic in the world.
Efforts to develop sustainable products are also in evidence at other points along the packaging production chain. To name just one example, Pack Less, a company based in the city of Cotia in the Greater São Paulo metropolitan area, recently launched an innovative green pallet made of polypropylene, for transporting goods from one place to another. The company was established four years ago and has a market presence in several countries (Argentina, Colombia, the United States and Europe) through licensing and joint ventures. It invested R$2 million in product development and in subsequent international patenting. Its 100% recyclable pallets are 10 times lighter than their wooden predecessors, and they take up less space on a ship. Because they are lighter, they reduce fuel consumption by trucks used to ship the goods to seaports, ultimately helping to reduce pollutant emissions. “All other things being equal, when compared to conventional pallets, Pack Less consumes 70% less energy and releases 90% less greenhouse gas,” says Pack Less director Rodinei Lapietra, adding that the company now has the capacity to produce 200,000 pallets per month. Pack Less was founded by engineer José Roberto Durço, one of the company’s partners, and developed with support from Braskem, eager to create a new use for its polypropylene.
Associative consortium to promote technological research in the packaging industry (nº 2001/10784-1); Grant Mechanism Sectoral Consortia for Research and Innovation (Consitec); Coordinator Luis Fernando Ceribelli Madi/Ital; Investment R$452,075.63 and $112,074.53 (FAPESP).