Food packaging preview: Insulated ecommerce container optimized for meal kits

By Rick Lingle in Protective Packaging on April 16, 2018

A do-it-all ecommerce shipping container in development for chilled meal kit delivery meets food safety and sustainability/reusability issues while delivering an engaging unboxing experience for consumers.

 

Most of the time editors learn of new products and packaging after they debut, less frequently as they are introduced into markets. Less seldom is when we hear about launches just prior to introduction.

Perhaps rarest of all such leads is a look at a conceptual package still in development that we are permitted to publicize. That’s the intent of this preview for an innovative ecommerce food packaging format from the polymer specialists at Nova Chemicals, specifically those in the company’s Polyethylene and Expandable Styrenics businesses.

They've been working on a conceptual design for an insulated ecommerce container or, as the company prefers to call it, a vessel. The vessel is intended for containing, shipping and protecting weekly meal kit subscriptions for delivery to consumers. It is designed to reduce the food spoilage risks and handling challenges of this unique supply chain so that each fresh food ingredient will be kept at its proper temperature until the customer unpacks the vessel.

In short, the company has set the development's performance and packaging bars high in a hot ecommerce segment where it's absolutely critical to keep things cool.

“Meal kit delivery companies face a huge challenge in keeping fresh foods at their proper temperature until the consumer unpacks the order at home,” states Bob Stoffa, Nova Chemicals’ Expandable Styrenics sales leader. “Many people who’ve tried one of these services has a story about a delayed or damaged vessel. Or of arriving home late, only to find their weekly order contains spoiled ingredients.

"Customized vessel design can greatly reduce this problem, and a reusable vessel has tremendous sustainability benefits as well.”

The company’s vessel concept will contain the number of meals that a household has ordered for a week.

“Common examples are three dinners for two people or six meals, or two dinners for four people or eight meals,” explains Jonathan Quinn, Nova Chemicals’ flexible markets development manager for the polyethylene performance films group.

While the conceptual container is neither patented nor patent pending, Quinn discloses additional details for Packaging Digest readers.

What sparked this development, and what is it all about?

Quinn: There are two answers to this question: One, on a “micro” level and the other on a “macro” level.

On a micro level, using extensive market research, Nova Chemicals identified a deficiency in the packaging and shipment of perishable foods direct to consumers. A recent Rutgers and Tennessee State University study showed that 47% of proteins shipped through the mail arrived at their destination above 40 deg F, which is considered unfit for consumption.

Although the study came out before the emergence of the meal kits industry (and reflected only dry ice shipments), the findings underscored the market need for enhanced secondary packaging that could:

  • Keep food fresh.
  • Be sustainable.
  • Be economically transported.

Nova Chemicals realized that a new design for an insulating vessel was necessary to fill this gap.

On a macro level, the company understood that the traditional delivery methods and packaging used within the context of the grocery store supply-chain model—in which bulk deliveries of food are made to grocers and then hand-selected by consumers—were not the same for ecommerce.

Three main drivers are fueling Nova Chemicals’ work in this area:

  • Sustainability—This has an overarching impact in e-commerce. One of the biggest challenges is overcoming the common complaint about “over-packaging.” There’s an opportunity for lighter weight, recyclable, and alternative primary packaging formats, and for durable and easily returnable or reusable secondary packaging (the shipping vessel). Currently, Nova Chemicals is not aware of any product in the marketplace that meets these criteria.
  • Food safety—Packaging materials need to reduce the risk of spoilage, and subsequently protect the consumer.
  • The “unboxing experience”—Ecommerce sellers, including those within the meal kits segment, want to provide consumers with a pleasing “unboxing” experience each time they open up their order.
  • Meal kit subscribers select the company that aligns best to their personality along with their food and meal style preferences. It’s about captivating consumers in a way that facilitates repeat business, and giving consumers the confidence that each time they receive their meal kit, the product will be at peak freshness and fit for consumption.

    In addition, Nova Chemicals belongs to the International Safe Transit Association (ISTA) and AMERIPEN, among other organizations that are doing good work in advancing the plastics and packaging industries. ISTA develops testing protocols and specifications, while AMERIPEN helps connect government and industry to facilitate the development of new policies, etc. Nova Chemicals’ hope is that the work of these two organizations may ultimately result in a specific set of standards for the meal kits segment.

    What development stage is this in?

    Quinn: Nova Chemicals has conceptual ideas and strategies to advance the project, and is currently seeking a brand owner development partner to ensure that the vessel meets market needs.

    What does the vessel look like and what is it made of?

    Quinn: The conceptual idea is that the insulating vessel would be similar to a high-performance cooler; it would have a tough polyethylene rotational molded exterior with a high-performance expanded polystyrene foam insulating insert, and another rotational molded inner liner of PE. In addition, it would be reusable and space saving—possibly a collapsible design.

    Are other companies working with Nova Chemicals in this development?

    Quinn: There are molders interested in working with Nova Chemicals to develop the vessel once a brand owner partner has been identified.

    Does the company already have a presence in the ecommerce space?

    Quinn: This is still in the concept stage. Based on market research, Nova Chemicals believes there will be a very viable market demand.

    What is the expectation for vessel?

    Quinn: By providing the performance and design characteristics that meet marketplace demands, Nova Chemicals anticipates playing a crucial role in helping meal kit providers design and manufacture vessels that meet the evolving safety, packaging, branding and volume shipping requirements of their industry.

     

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    Ecommerce challenges, new bioplastic technologies, a hands-on upcycling activity and more are part of the new Packaging Education Hub, a free 3-day program of packaging  presentations and demos at EastPack 2018 (June 12-14; New York City).

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