Approximately one third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted. While this contributes to roughly 8 percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide, only 5 percent of carbon emissions in food systems are attributable to food packaging.i
In this unsustainable scenario, our goal to protect the climate by minimizing carbon emissions critically relies on using the right packaging to prevent food waste. This action is also beneficial to other aspects of the environment, specifically forest conservation. By minimizing food excess, less land is needed for its production – thereby preserving swathes of woodland that would otherwise have been transformed into farms.
To this end, smarter food packaging positively contributes to the protection of biodiversity and climate conservation. As counterintuitive as it may seem, when viewed from a holistic perspective, we believe that these solutions will play an instrumental role in the well-being of our planet.
Protecting food is low hanging fruit for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions
From an environment, economic and social point of view, food waste is far more detrimental than waste from its packaging. The severity of this issue has been noted by prominent interests, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, who assert that if food wastage were a country “it would be the third largest [greenhouse gas] emitting state in the world.” This fictional nation would be responsible for roughly the combined total of all road transport emissions globally.ii
The true scale of food waste and its impacts have not been fully understood until now. As such, the opportunities provided by its waste reduction have remained largely untapped and underutilized.iii UNEP’s Food Waste Index Report for 2021 states that a total 8 to 10 percent of GHG emissions are associated with unconsumed food. The report concludes that reducing food waste at retail, food service, and household levels can provide multi-faceted benefits to across the board.
Packaging helps reduce food waste, due to its protective function. Research has shown that the environmental benefit of prevented food waste is typically 5 to 10 times higher than the environmental harm of its packaging. More definitively, product protection pays off for food groups with resource-heavy production (i.e., fast-moving perishables), whilst efficient packaging provides the optimal food preservation, using minimal recyclable or reusable materials where possible.iv
Using trees to save forests: the role of packaging in protecting biodiversity
Food waste increases the need for expansive farmland, which is a leading cause of the current biodiversity crisis and a large contributor to global pollution. Combined with the world’s growing population and the consumption that will inevitably follow, enormous pressure is being added onto forests and natural habitats, and in many instances with irreversible effects.
The Global Forest Review by the World Resources Institute has found that just seven agricultural commodities account for 26 percent of global tree cover loss between 2001 and 2015 – an area more than twice the size of Germany. At the top of the list were cattle, palm oil, and soy production; three major food industries. Whilst the hot spots of manufacturing vary by commodity, forest replacement is largely prevalent in the tropics, where biodiversity is most concentrated.v
To tackle this issue, our goal is to use fiber from either recycled or certified sustainable sources.vi We are committed to minimizing our own footprint through the sustainably managed forests we use as raw materials for our packaging. In doing so, we believe that our solutions will have a larger handprintvii, i.e. positive sustainability impact, and provide added support as a counter to the forests that are in danger of becoming farmland.
Highlighting the role of packaging in preventing food waste on the agenda
We believe that acting on food waste should be a key priority and topic of discussion for the upcoming COP26 climate summit. As Tesco’s chief executive Dave Lewis observes in a recent edition of The Guardian, “not a single country mentions food waste in its nationally determined contribution to the Paris climate agreement.”viii There is a need for urgency in this issue that has generally been undermined, as confirmed by UNEP’s Food Index Report who state “this potential has until now been woefully under-exploited.”
We aim to change this scenario, starting with creating awareness to the current situation. More tangibly, driving evidence-based discussion and creating regulatory frameworks for innovation are a few methods we use to push forward progress. We believe that no single organization can solve the global sustainability challenges alone. However, with the combined efforts of multiple entities across industries, together we can create authentic differences in food protection, benefitting people and planet alike.
If you are interested in taking part in this conversation to unlock sustainability please register for our workshop on the challenges and opportunities at Think Circle roundtables.
[i] Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers.
[iii] United Nations Environment Programme (2021). Food Waste Index Report 2021. Nairobi. https://www.unep.org/resources/report/unep-food-waste-index-report-2021
[iv] Food wastage footprint and climate change: http://www.fao.org/3/bb144e/bb144e.pdf
[vii] According to VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland the idea behind the carbon handprint is that a company develops products and services that enable its customers to reduce their carbon footprint. The calculation gives the size of the handprint brought about by the company's product: the bigger the handprint, the better.