Food- and medicine-safety concerns have led to many packaging innovations over the years. Perishable foods, dairy products and pharmaceuticals have pushed packaging inventors to increase shelf life, enhance safety measures and create convenient storage options for consumers. From the food humans consume to pet food, concerns over contaminants leaching into the food chain have raised material risk awareness. The race for convenience has raised several safety concerns, and increased scrutiny has led advocates to demand sustainable, recyclable and safer materials for consumers.

In addition to the innovations derived for convenience, improved printing and marking drive material choice. Branding largely leads the innovation march because marketers use branding opportunities to set their products apart from one another. Shapes, colors and presentation all factor into packaging designs and material selection.

Like other innovation-driven industries, the packaging industry has tapped automation in its quest to develop new and better materials. Thanks to advancements in process heating, the speed at which the machines are capable of printing, cutting, seaming, filling and wrapping has improved handling and process times. Despite process heating’s crucial role in the packaging industry, it seems to take a back seat in many minds. Only rarely is it discussed for what it is: a critical piece of equipment for ensuring effective packaging.

Popularity of Plastic Packaging Drives Innovation

Before delving into some of processes that ensure packaging is safe, secure and adaptable, a look at the evolution of packaging materials — and the concerns around them — is necessary. No lesson on packaging history would be complete without an introduction to plastic packaging. Love it or hate it, plastic has dominated the packaging industry since its introduction in the early 1900s. It is lightweight, malleable and easy to manufacture. Today, plastic resins and other derivative materials continue to play an integral role in packaging. From tamperproof seals to shrink wrapping and to multipack water bottles — all made with process heating — plastic packaging protects products until they are put to use.

Fast food’s popularity after World War II created a packaging boom, producing numerous short-term and condiment packaging innovations. The increased output led to mountains of trash and spawned recycling urgency.

Today, the plastics industry boasts an improved environmental footprint. Despite the progress that has been made, and the increased awareness of plastic’s impact, it is still nearly impossible to drive down a freeway or swim in an ocean without seeing the impact plastic resins have on our planet. If not properly recycled, the product will not degrade or breakdown within our lifetime. That is why reinventing plastics using biodegradable solutions — and packaging them with Earth-friendly process heating solutions — is a necessity for the ecosystem and for the safety of our water sources and food chain.

Despite the industry’s recent innovations, scrutiny over potential long-term hazards and exposure to BPA-based plastics still remains contestable.

Hesitations Around BPA

One such concern is Bisphenol A, which is better known as BPA. BPA is an environmental chemical building block that is used primarily to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. Polycarbonate plastic is the most popular lightweight, high performance plastic and is used in a wide variety of common food and drink packaging. Despite its tough, resilient and heat-resistant nature, many countries have banned the use of BPA with consumables for fear of BPA leaching. Just recently, the FDA banned its use for infant food packaging and teething or oral products.

BPA is one of the most extensively tested materials in use today, according to experts with BiphenolA.org. (It has been studied for more than 40 years.) The organization claims scientific evidence clearly supports that BPA is safe to use and that there is no basis for human health concerns from exposure. They go on to say that levels of BPA leached into food are extremely low, and that the amount is, on average, five parts per billion under typical conditions for packaging products. At that level, people would have to consume 1,300 pounds of food and beverages every day for an entire lifetime to exceed a safe level.

Despite these findings, most of the research from this group of experts is dated. Furthermore, there is evidence and research to the contrary, showing cognitive deficits, anxiety, obesity and cancer from exposure to BPA. As the FDA continues to be pressured by advocates, more research is expected, and limitations to exposure are advised for those concerned about the impact and long-term ramifications. Moving forward, bioplastic alternatives — from things like wheat, sugarcane and corn — are positioned to be a responsible choice for the planet and safer to the consumers who use it.

Tylenol Tampering Curtails Consumer Trust

Consumers are not only concerned about materials safety. Tampering also has been a serious issue, and one that led to significant changes in the packaging industry. In the early ’80s, Tylenol found itself at the center of a crisis: Bottles of the over-the-counter pain reliever had been tampered with and poisoned with cyanide. Several people died as a result of the poisoning. Tylenol ordered a mass recall of its product and actively participated with the media to avoid additional deaths and reputation damage. Tylenol insisted the poisonings were perpetrated outside of the factory and investigators agreed. Those responsible, who were never caught, allegedly removed the Tylenol from the retail shelves and tampered with the contents.

Today, great measures are taken to alert consumers of product tampering, and there have been significant safety improvements. Updates like foil seals, shrink-wrapped tops and gelatin-covered tablets were introduced shortly after the Tylenol tampering case. By 1989, the measures were standard practice, and published guidelines were produced by the FDA.

Process Heating Makes Safer Packaging Possible

What many do not realize is that packaging changes like foil seals and shrink-wrapped tops could not have been introduced without process heating. Process heating technology has remained a critical element in keeping products safe and secure as demands on heating components have been pushed to the limits. It is not hard to see why. What drives the need for more process heating solutions? Constant improvement to automation lines, research and testing, and new processes are just a few of the things forcing the process heating industry to expand their offerings.

With laminating, drying, pasteurizing, curing, flashing, evaporating, sterilizing, sealing, shrinking and recycling, it is not uncommon for automated machines to utilize or add several types of heating products throughout the packaging process. In addition, continued demands are placed on heating components to produce higher temperatures at faster speeds. Packaging manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to improve process times, support new material initiatives, reach more customers and improve quality. Process heating technology helps them do this.

In addition to process heating’s traditional electric air heater elements, infrared heaters are just as important. The noncontact, efficient use of power can radiate wavelengths that rapidly heat surfaces, focus energy where needed, and activate adhesives used to seal in freshness. Combinations of the technologies have been used for years because they have the ability to scale up and down as the industry changes.

Beyond the packaging industry, it is known that UV light can damage and even kill biologicals (think sunburns and skin cancer). All UV wavelengths alter cells and are capable of destroying biological tissues. In the packaging industry, UV disinfection systems are used throughout food processing plants, pharmaceutical facilities and hospital facilities. Because of their construction, UV lamps are usually in a sealed environment with regenerative circulating heated air. Duration of UV exposure is the key to its effectiveness to disinfect and sterilize packaging materials and the automated machine parts. Steps like UV disinfection systems play a major role in keeping consumer packaging secure and protected.

In conclusion, the packaging industry has come a long way. Packaging helps solve consumer problems, improve product safety and answer a number of serious concerns. Without innovations in process heating technology and the kind of safe packaging that it provides, changes to problematic packaging and materials would take far too long or may not even be possible at all. Packaging manufacturers must ensure they are implementing solid process heating procedures and safe packaging standards. If they do not, they risk the safety of their consumers and the health of planet Earth.  

Additional Reading

For more information on the studies discussed in this article, please see the following sources.

  • “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” Trucost, 2016, https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/study-from-trucost-finds-plastics-reduce-environmental-costs/.
  • “Potential Exposure to Bisphenol A from Food-Contact Use of Polycarbonate Resins.” Howe, S.R. and Borodinsky, L. 1998. Food Addit. Contam. 15(3):370-5. Abstract available at PubMed, http://www.bisphenol-a.org.
  • “Low circulating levels of bisphenol-A induce cognitive deficits and loss of asymmetric spine synapses in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and hippocampus of adult male monkeys.” Elsworth, J. D., Jentsch, J. D., Groman, S. M., Roth, R. H., Redmond, E. D. and Leranth, C. (2015), J. Comp. Neurol., 523: 1248–1257. doi:10.1002/cne.23735.