Food is an invaluable commodity, yet almost a third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted across the supply chain. An estimated 931 million tonnes of food available to consumers landed in the waste bins of households, retailers, restaurants, and other food providers in 2019 alone.i This is at a time when nearly 10% of the global population does not have access to sufficient food. There is no one clear reason for this waste, with factors ranging from agricultural storage issues to a lack of coordination within the retail sector as well as consumer habits.
We believe reducing avoidableii food waste – that is food that is still edible at the time of disposal or would have been if consumed in time – should be forefront when discussing food systems. However, this is easier said than done. Collaborative effort is necessary to make a significant contribution to food waste prevention, and each sector has a part to play. We believe that better, smarter packaging is essential for protection, as well as increased lifespan. of food and that it plays a vital role in reducing food waste across the value chain from farm to fork.
Where does food waste occur?
Even in the early stages of food production, waste is apparent. In agricultural practices and processing, waste is generated through harvest losses, storage losses and products not meeting global market standards. Losses grow towards the end of the value chain as a result of sales and consumer activities. According to UNEP, the amount of food waste generated is roughly 17 percent of the total food available to consumers. While the food service and retail sectors contribute around 5 percent and 2 percent respectively, most of the waste comes from individual households, which discard 11 percent of the total food available.
Food manufacturers and retailers have the greatest influence on the packaging used to supply food to consumers. The selection criteria that these companies use for packaging can include consumer preferences, the presentation of the product in store branches, the functionality of the packaging, and the cost of packaging.
Additionally, the time food stays on the shelf or in the refrigerator before it is consumed will have an impact on food waste. Surveys show consumers rarely or never fully use packaging in the correct way, and in most cases, the shelf-life prolonging feature of food packaging is not fully used. For example, not closing jam or cheese packaging, or storing them at temperatures warmer than is recommended, leads to the product being prematurely discarded.iii
How can better packaging help?
The primary roles of food packaging are to protect food products from damage and spoilage, contain the food during transport and storage, and provide consumers with ingredient and nutritional information.iv Traceability, convenience, and tamper indication are secondary features, which are also important.v
Product protection is the most important factor in the environmental evaluation of packaging. By providing protection from chemical, biological and physical external influences, packaging delays product deterioration, retains the benefits of processing, extends shelf life, and can also maintain or increase the quality and safety of food. By doing so, packaging ensures that the resource used to produce food, and the carbon footprint created, is not wasted. Given the significant carbon footprint of food production, this is crucial.
Product protection pays off, especially for food products with high carbon footprints. While the carbon footprint of vegetables, fruit and bread typically ranges from 0.2-2.0 kg CO2e, as much as 5-10kg CO2e are produced per kg of chicken and pork, and 20-30 kg CO2e per kg of beef.vi Another aspect is the location of production, as the further food is transported from its source, the more likely it is to spoil; requiring packaging to both protect during transportation and deliver longer shelf life so it reaches the consumer without loss.
Only 5 percent of carbon emissions in food systems are attributable to food packaging.vii The environmental benefit of avoided waste is usually 5 to 10 times higher than the environmental cost of the packaging.viii Whilst this advantage is rarely calculated quantitatively, research shows that doubling the minimum shelf life of food can reduce the waste in the retail sector, upwards by 40 percent. The benefit of innovative packaging is most evident with highly perishable products.
For instance, the vacuum skin for beef packaging increases its shelf life from 6-7 days to 12-14 days as opposed to meat available over the counter. Ham packaged for self-service preserves its contents for 3 days longer than the in-store packed version – and although this packaging is more expensive, the resulting costs of food waste from ham packed in-store is almost four times greater than the additional costs of pre-packed ham.ix
The balance that smarter food packaging must achieve is to contain food in a cost‐effective way that satisfies industry requirements and consumer desires, maintains food safety, and does this with minimum environmental impact. This is called optimal packaging, or optimized packaging - use as few materials as possible without compromising on food protection and waste prevention.
Moving towards a better strategy to reduce food waste
For our food systems to become sustainable – and secure our future – their environmental impacts need to be reduced. Whilst there is no straightforward solution for the sustainable management of waste in food systems, the cooperation of all players along the food value chain is vital to reach any kind of success.
Food packaging is integral to the product it contains and as such it is an essential part of the product supply chain. Continual innovation is key to delivering further improvements, for instance, to determine the necessary shelf life and correct product protection, to identify efficiency opportunities within complex production, distribution and consumer choice standards, to test, optimize and introduce innovative solutions, and to analyze consumer behavior.
Our goal is to engage in dynamic partnerships with our customers and suppliers and to contribute to a resource-efficient and circular economy by optimizing operations, minimizing food waste and protecting products across the value chain, from farm to fork.
[i] United Nations Environment Programme (2021). Food Waste Index Report 2021. Nairobi. https://www.unep.org/resources/report/unep-food-waste-index-report-2021
[ii] A distinction is made between avoidable food waste that is still fully edible at the time of disposal (e.g. leftover pieces of pizza) or would have been edible if consumed in time (e.g. moldy bread) and unavoidable food waste (e.g. inedible parts such as bones or peelings, but also potentially edible parts such as potato peelings).
[iv] Coles R. 2003. Introduction. In: Coles R, McDowell D, Kirwan MJ, editors. Food packaging technology. London, U.K.: Blackwell Publishing, CRC Press. p 1–31
[v] Kenneth Marsh Ph.D. Betty Bugusu Ph.D. Food Packaging—Roles, Materials, and Environmental Issues https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1750-3841.2007.00301.x
[vi] Denkstatt (2020). Interne Auswertung diverser Studien und Datenbanken zum Carbon Footprint von Lebensmitteln
[vii] Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers.
[viii] Food wastage footprint and climate change: http://www.fao.org/3/bb144e/bb144e.pdf