Up to half of the global fruit and vegetable production ends up as wastage. In the Western world, roughly half of this wastage is generated by food retailers and consumers.
The issue involves more than environmental factors. The financial losses caused by fruit and vegetable wastage generated by households and food retailers are around €200 billion annually, in Europe and the United States alone. For individual food retailer chains, vegetable spoilage can yield in annual losses of up to tens of millions of euros.
The traditional methods of prolonging the life of fruit and vegetables are packing them in sealed containers and regulating the temperature and gas composition of the storage environment.
“In the case of loose products, and vegetables stored in open packages, these methods are usually unsuitable. And consumers don’t have many other means apart from the refrigerator with which to prolong the shelf life of vegetables,” says Assistant Professor Kirsi Mikkonen from the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Helsinki.
The FreshPack commercialisation project launched at the University of Helsinki aims to reduce fruit and vegetable wastage through the use of a new type of nature-based and non-toxic component to be added into packaging. The project is based on an innovation developed at the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Helsinki, for which a patent is pending.
“Our innovation slows down the ripening processes and microbiological decaying of fruit and vegetables. The FreshPack method works not only in closed packages and cold rooms but also at room temperature and in unsealed packages,” explains project planner Emmi Korjus.
The FreshPack innovation grew from combining three different research areas or ideas.
“My group was studying different bio-based packages. At that time, Professor Maija Tenkanen was on a research sabbattical. She started to think about new packaging solutions. The third piece of the puzzle was Dr. Mari Lehtonen, who had already for some time studied vegetable oils,” says Kirsi Mikkonen.
Commercialisation is the target – and it is getting nearer
The science behind the FreshPack concept is already well established with the help of the HiLIFE Proof of Concept grant. Now the team aims at commercialisation.
“We need to develop packaging solutions that work well in the supply chain. The final product needs to be industrially scalable. Therefore we need collaborators to help us fine-tune the invention for different purposes: from automated packaging lines, grocery stores and cold rooms to homes.”
The first matrix or the minimum viable product has now been decided upon. It will be a pad that is integrated into a container. The pad can also be used as moisture absorber and cushion. Also target categories have been specified: the team concentrates on berries and fresh-cuts.
FreshPack was first presented in the Slush 2019. Now, after a year, the team has gathered a lot of experience, and also two new members to strengthen the expertise on the technical side. This way two people are able to concentrate on commercialisation.
The most inspiring thing according to Emmi Korjus has been to notice the interest and enthusiasm of producers, brands and distributers for a new solution that helps them to gain more value for their products and to decrease the amount of generated waste.
"Many of them want to invest in sustainable development by exploring new packaging material options. And on a technical side it has been really inspiring to see all the possibilities that our technology has to offer for different products," Emmi Korjus says.
The team is now at an early stage in testing with industrial partners, e.g. berry farmers, distributors and container producers. They have also received assistance from the industry in conducting laboratory scale shelf-life experiments.
Covid-19 effects on the team: not all negative
The Covid-19 outbreak has of course had its effects on FreshPack project. The University of Helsinki facilities were closed for two months during the spring 2020, and both the team and the stakeholders have had to adapt to the new situation.
"But fortunately we managed to use time wisely by doing background work and planning: when laboratories opened we already had a plan to continue with," Emmi Korjus finishes.
The article was originally published on 7 November 2019, after which an amended version was published on 27 October 2020.