Like most people around the world, my family and I have been doing whatever we can to adjust to life under the restrictions that have been put in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the first things we did was determine what supplies we needed to buy to prepare ourselves for a world where we might not be able to leave our house. The first task was to go through our inventory of frozen food.

As I was sorting through the food, I couldn’t help but notice the many different types of packaging. There were boxes, bags, bags packed in boxes, loose food in boxes, packages shaped for specific foods and just random packaging that didn’t seem to fit any of those categories. It is incredible how much of the food in our freezers is either packed into a box (these were the ones I noticed with freezer burn) or put in a bag then in a box. I wondered why the loose food in boxes was not bagged and why the bag-in-the-box packages even needed a box. Why not just put a sticker on the bag or make a graphically attractive bag like so many other food items?

Food packaging has evolved significantly over the last 35 years. There have been amazing innovations on many fronts that were designed to appeal to changing consumer tastes, improve food quality and safety, preserve the environment and promote sustainability, provide companies with new ways to advertise and make their products stand out in the grocery stores. However, what my freezer cleaning project illustrates is that there is more to be done. There are still a great many improvements that can be made in packaging in the areas of quality and efficiency. Most importantly, these changes can improve the effectiveness of the supply chain.

Let’s start with the loose food packed in cardboard boxes. Cardboard boxes are not airtight and therefore can jeopardize food quality and safety through things like freezer burn, etc. Secondly, the boxes take up more space than they need to. Flexible bags or pouches allow for airtight packing and save space. These bags can be packed in shipping cartons, allowing improved inventory effectiveness, with more products able to fit on trucks and more bags able to be stocked in store freezers and display units.

Flexible bags are already very popular and common in food packaging, especially for frozen foods. There are various styles and many times depending on the product and the manufacturer, they are created in the same packing area where the food is being packed. Rolls of clear film are loaded on the machine, the packing unit is created and the food is packed. Labels are then put on the package, and into a shipping container they go. Manufacturers can also automate the processes to improve efficiency, as well as purchase pre-made bags and tailor them to their needs.

To reiterate, a good amount of the food in my freezer was packed in clear bags and then placed in a box. I am not sure what purpose that serves. The film is a bit thinner than what is used for bags that are packed without the additional box, but it seems more than substantial enough to protect the food inside. Eliminating the box would save space for the consumer, the retailer and the manufacturer. The cost savings from eliminating the box would be huge as plastic film is less expensive in most cases than cardboard. By eliminating the box, more bagged product could fit in the shipping carton, which would increase the amount of product per truckload. This could potentially reduce shipping costs. The added weight of the additional food would be offset by the reduction in weight from eliminating the carton. Eliminating the box would also simplify the manufacturing process as the boxing of the bagged food is no longer needed, thus reducing production time. These changes would not only improve supply chain and manufacturing performance, the cost savings would directly increase profits.

These changes would also promote sustainability by creating less waste. Plain and simple, while cardboard food packaging can and should be recycled, let’s face it, in many cases it isn’t. Many of the cardboard boxes that are used to pack frozen food end up in landfills. If manufacturers were to use clear bags with stickers for product identification, advertising and nutritional information, the same size bag could be used for multiple products. This change would simplify bills of materials, reduce costs and simplify the purchasing process. The stickers could be created in-house and minimize additional costs for packaging graphics.

If you stop and think about it, the possibilities are endless. Innovations in packaging, especially “flexible” packaging, are evolving to address sustainability issues and appeal to the ever-changing tastes of consumers. An in-depth analysis of this evolution would provide actionable insights and illustrate that flexible packaging can seriously improve the performance of the supply chain. The food industry, specifically food and beverage manufacturers, faces increased disruption and companies have been forced in some cases to change the way they do business. Supply chains have become extremely complex, and there are more added costs than ever before. My freezer consolidation exercise shows that there can be tremendous progress toward the dual goals of minimizing waste in the environment and promoting sustainable behaviors. Packaging manufacturers are, I am sure, doing the same thing, and in the process of implementing packaging solutions, streamlining the supply chain and reducing waste of space, time, inventory and transportation costs.