Design Engineering
Showcase

Food Shopping in a Circular Economy

Course
Design Engineering MEng
Supervisor
Olga Kravchenko
Theme
Rethinking Resources for a Finite Planet

There has never been a better time to rethink how we shop for food, to reduce the catastrophic effect of single-use disposable plastic packaging on the environment. The project addresses this by proposing a supply chain dispenser system and reusable primary packaging product for short shelf-life fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs), with a focus on yoghurt. It solves the issue of waste before it becomes waste by executing an intervention at the top of the supply chain. It is a facilitator in society’s transition to reusable packaging, demonstrating the potential feasibility of implementing a large-scale commercial reuse system for short shelf-life FMCGs.

 — Food Shopping in a Circular Economy

Background

Our planet is fast approaching tipping points, beyond which climate change will accelerate and leave long-term, irreversible damage. Plastic, in particular single-use, disposable plastic packaging, is one of the main contributors to emissions. The disposal of packaging costs the UK authorities over £820 million a year and every day over 8 million plastic products enter the ocean. Even by increasing recycling, emissions would be largely similar to today. This inspired the initial research question for the project: to identify a gap in the market for reusable packaging design and discover why it isn’t more widely adopted.

Research

Food shopping habits have shifted in recent years, showing Brits are now shopping more frequently but buying less each time in an effort to reduce waste and prevent overbuying. However, Waitrose Manager Andrew Lock claims “the food industry has become more aggressive, with profit margins lower than 20 years ago...new initiatives are based more around finance than conscience for the environment”, implying any solution must be financially beneficial to the supermarket to be implemented. Almost 75% of customers buy food on the day they need it, so use-by dates are becoming less important.

Existing research and papers were mapped on timelines, highlighting the rising importance of a design intervention as the topic becomes more prevalent. Investigating existing solutions in detail, showed the market is saturated in the production of reusable packaging for long-life goods. This allowed the identification of a gap in the market for short-shelf-life FMCGs, such as dairy products. Narrowing down the problem space, by selecting yoghurt as a case study and young professionals as the target user, facilitated the development of a detailed initial design specification.

The aims for the project were to:

  1. Challenge the design of existing packaging through the design of a versatile reusable container;
  2. Propose an alternative system to commercial food shopping.

Methodology

The solution was divided into the design of the supply chain and the user journey. Supermarket employees and experts in the field were contacted to secure support and well-informed feedback throughout the project.

The user journey was developed first, beginning with the ideation of customer journey maps. Feedback from experts and users was obtained and the favourite designs were developed and compared to the existing system, highlighting changes more clearly. Further expert feedback confirmed the favourite design.

 — Food Shopping in a Circular Economy

Information storage is a key consideration in the food supply chain, comprising the price and other details usually shown on a product label, such as ingredients, use by date and nutritional information. QR codes and barcodes were researched and rejected, before coming across radio frequency identification (RFID), the same technology as contactless bank cards. These consist of a microchip, containing information which can be updated extremely easily, and an antenna which detects signals. An RFID chip will be embedded in the primary packaging and a reader in the dispenser will scan the chip in the packaging to access this information, updating it when a new product is dispensed. The same chip will be read by scanners at checkout and smartphones at home, to enable the user to pay and access product information from home.

 — Food Shopping in a Circular Economy

Two phases of ideation, prototyping and testing, and user feedback were carried out, from which the primary packaging design was finalised. The final design is made from silicone and PP which are food, dishwasher, microwave and freezer safe materials. The design is origami inspired, folding to fit in a bag easily.

The existing supply chain was mapped to visualise the areas with most waste, from which a new system was proposed. Following expert feedback, a ‘Value Stream Map’ was generated of the current and future state. This is a lean-management tool used to evaluate the current state of a supply chain and thus design a more efficient future state. For example, the different packaging components are currently all manufactured at different locations, so the transport involved in this is one of the waste streams removed. These were then replaced with new steps. The number of packaging manufacturers was reduced to only one and a loop was added for the refill bag to be returned and refilled. Disposal at the end of the life was replaced with cleaning, then eventually recycling. The recycled material will then be put back into the supply chain to make new material for the primary packaging. The materials and products are regularly tagged so databases can be updated on information, like stock levels and location.

 — Food Shopping in a Circular Economy

The dispenser itself was then developed. Unfortunately, progress was halted due to Covid-19, preventing prototyping. However, designs were developed, and a CAD model produced.

 — Food Shopping in a Circular Economy

Outcome

The solution is financially appealing to users. If used 300 times before disposal, it has a payback time of 2.2. years. The scaled cost of materials in the new packaging is 68% of the old packaging per refill, which, if it is assumed the price of yoghurt is unchanged, will be cheaper to users. The packaging is expected to last much longer than this so the savings will only increase the more times it’s used.

The dispenser is designed to be space efficient. In a given volume of shelf space, 3 times the volume of yoghurt more can be stored than currently, meaning more brands and flavours can be displayed.

Raw material consumption for packaging manufacture is reduced by 78% over the space of one year, assuming the system fully replaces existing packaging. By repeatedly using the new packaging, it would take 2.6 months to offset the initial increase in raw material required.

Finally, 27,000 tons of packaging waste every year from single use yoghurt containers will be stopped, reducing strain on and energy consumed by the waste sector.

The project is a catalyst for work in commercial reuse systems. It has demonstrated the potential of redesigning the existing system, in a way that is widely accepted by both users and experts, by exploring and investigating new methods of labelling, tracking and dispensing. Implementation will encourage people to be more conscious of their environmental choices.

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