Could a smarter expiration label combat the food waste crisis?

The temperature-sensitive Mimica Touch label is rolling out across juice bottles and has its sights on the meat (and medical) markets.

1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted globally each year. In the UK, 60% of that wasted food is still safe to consume. Solveiga Pakštaitė, an industrial designer from London, created Mimica Touch in an attempt to combat this problem.

Mimica Touch is a temperature-sensitive indicator that aims to provide a more accurate expiration guide. If you added two days of safe shelf life to perishable goods, it could potentially result in 50% less retail waste and 63% less home waste according to the company.

Mimica Touch Label courtesy of R/GA

While the product will take a different form depending on the product – if it’s a label or part of a cap, for example – it essentially comprises a bumpy plastic base, a gel in the middle and then a film layer on top. This “bio-responsive” gel reacts at the same rate that food spoils. When it liquifies, you can feel the bumps. If the label is smooth, the food is safe to consume. If it’s bumpy, it means it’s spoiled.

The product was inspired by the inaccuracy of existing expiry dates. The problem with them is that they’re calculated according to the “worst case scenario”, Pakštaitė explains to Design Week. They work on the assumption that customers do not store fresh goods in a fridge but at room temperature. Her label was originally a student project which won the UK Dyson Award in 2014. Back then it was called Bump Mark. In the six years since, the name is not the only thing that’s changed.

Scaling up inclusively

Courtesy of Mimica

Pakštaitė says that it didn’t make sense to scale up using gelatin, as it wouldn’t have been a good example of “inclusive design”. Instead, the team – which has grown to ten members – worked on creating a new vegan-friendly gel in its laboratory collaboration with the University of Chester.

The look of the label has evolved too. Previously it was triangular so that it could be placed in the corner of packaging but user research showed that people expected information in the bottom right-hand corner, Pakštaitė says. The team also added a flat comparison area so that people could tell what the bumps should feel like – “it’s a brand new interaction for people,” she explains.

At the moment the label is designed in “binary” terms, Pakštaitė explains. As soon as a consumer can feel bumps, that means the product should not be consumed. “As it’s a completely new interaction, we don’t want people prematurely misinterpreting a mid-point as the end-point,” she says. “We took the pregnancy test approach – no one wants a maybe.” In the future, once people are more used to the product, she says a “middle phase” could be introduced.

Courtesy of R/GA

The first product that Mimica will be trialling this year is set for June (bar any major Covid-related delays) and will be used on juice bottles. It’s worked with a juice manufacturer and the focus will be on the waste from bottles included in meal deals and bigger versions that a family might use over a few days.

The label will be integrated with a cap – a two-part design that is the company’s second patent. Juice bottles are “stable” until you open them, Pakštaitė explains. “Before you open them and add oxygen and bacteria in, it’s flushed with gas. When you open it, it spoils much quicker.”

Mimica needed to know when the bottles had been opened and so worked on a consumer-activated cap, which lets the label know when the cap has been twisted. In November, it won a government grant to pilot the manufacture of these products. As well as providing the vital information for the label, this approach also means that the labels can be more easily integrated into the manufacturing process, Pakštaitė points out.

“Disruptive in our thinking but not implementation”

Courtesy of Dyson

According to the designer, one of the failings of past similar labels is that they’ve been difficult to integrate into the manufacturing process. She says this became apparent when the team was working with Danish dairy company Arla and saw how efficient its factor line was. “If you slow it down even by a fraction of a second, that multiplies,” she explains. “We designed it to be disruptive in our thinking but not implementation.”

Official guidance says that juice should usually be consumed within two to three days, but Pakštaitė says Mimica’s lab research has shown it’s “much longer with that”. It’s hard to give a definitive timeline – it depends on each brand’s manufacturing process – but she says that it can be “at least four times longer than what it is now”.

Instead of working against the existing system, Pakstaite says a key to the label’s success will be in how it “melds with existing guidance”. One of the concerns for client is around legality, especially when it comes to meat products,  Pakštaitė says. “The food industry lives in fear of extending shelf life,” she says. “They’re scared of being sued and accidentally making someone sick.”

Part of the process then is educating clients about how Mimica could actually create a situation where there’s less risk. That involves working with clients on the considerations for their expiry dates and creating a “more appropriate date” based on the specific product’s “spoilage characteristics”. The Mimica label would then catch any of the scenarios that might cause premature expiry. “It’s about presenting a situation where legally there’s less risk than before.”

Where could this have the biggest impact?

Courtesy of Mimica

While juice is where there’s been a lot of industry support, Pakštaitė says that Mimica could have the biggest impact when it comes to dairy, meat and fish. Apart from the juice cap trial, one of 2021’s biggest focuses will be to create a flat label for meat packaging. “Most people buy meat in a modified atmosphere packaging – film and a tray,” she says, pointing out its similarity to juice bottle. “We want a consumer activation on the flat label as well.”

“Our vision is to be the global mark for freshness on all type of perishable products,” she says. There’s a world of wasted products outside of what we eat, Pakštaitė points out. Cosmetic products, for example, also have “way too short a shelf life”, the designer adds.

One pressing area is vaccine wastage, which is startingly high worldwide. The World Health Organisation estimates that around 50% of vaccines gobally may be wasted because of poor temperature control. One of the concerns about the Covid vaccination roll-out worlwide is that many lower income countries do not have the right infrastructure to store them safely. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at around -70°C for example, though the Oxford vaccine can be stored at around 2°C.

Beyond vaccines, other medical supplies could be a focus in the future for Mimica – think logistics around blood and organ donations. “They’re basically meat until they go into another person,” Pakštaitė says. “And they need to be fresh.”

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