Food packaging

Packaging is a silent warrior against food waste

In recent years, food waste has arisen as a major topic as we come to terms with feeding an extra two billion people by the middle of this century. Rather than just relying on additional food production to feed a growing planet, the opportunity to reduce or prevent post-harvest food waste offers an attractive option to wage a war on food waste.

Therefore, reducing food waste has becoming a theme for rallying the support of consumer groups, commercial enterprises and even governmental bodies. Estimates of food waste from farm to fork range as high as 50% of the food that is produced.

While the prospect of reducing wasted food appears to create significant opportunities to feed more people, it is really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of overall benefits.

Consider for example, the vast amount of resources that have gone into the production of the food that is wasted. The amount of water, fertilizers, feed and energy used for equipment and facilities is effectively reduced, by minimising the amount of food that is wasted post-harvest.

In addition, the energy and materials used in transporting, storing, processing and refrigerating food in the supply chain is more effectively utilised. Finally, the wasted food itself does not make its way to landfills where it occupies space and decomposes to produce carbon dioxide and methane greenhouse gases.

But how can food waste be reduced? Waste is an inherent result of the way we must move food from the farm to the plate. It is widely recognised that, in developed countries, consumers are the most wasteful part of the entire supply chain. But consumers don’t consciously decide to waste food. Making consumers aware of the food waste issue can have some benefit but what is needed is a change in the way food is transported, purchased, stored and used.

The food supply chain represents a complex system and solutions are needed that can optimise across that supply chain by minimising overall waste production all the way to the consumer. This optimisation is typically not without cost—it requires investment in solutions whose value must outweigh their cost. Food packaging systems are an example of one such strategy to maximize food utilisation while minimising waste from the point of production all the way to consumption.

Surprisingly, innovative packaging systems are often overlooked as a solution to the food waste challenge. However, packaging represents a powerful means to prevent unintended food loss across the supply chain. To properly apply packaging solutions to reduce food waste, it is important to understand both why food is being wasted (root cause) as well as where it is being wasted (stage in supply chain).

To illustrate, consider five ways that the packaged food industry is developing and implementing improved solutions for reducing post-harvest food waste:

Protection. Perishable foods are typically affected by light, oxygen, temperature, moisture or microbial contamination. Packaging systems that provide a barrier to one or more of these factors can prevent spoilage and extend shelf life.

For example, new ultrathin flexible packaging films that block the transmission of oxygen, allow fresh meat products to increase shelf life from less than a week to 21 days or more. This allows food products to be safely distributed and sold, while providing consumers with longer time to use a product without spoilage.

Freshness Preservation. By using packaging to change the environment around a packaged, perishable food, the freshness of that food can be preserved for a longer time while eliminating food additives that work to stabilise food. Films can now actively absorb so-called “confinement odours” within food packages that could cause consumers to think that food was spoiled.

By maintaining the sensory attributes of fresh foods up to the point of use, less food will be discarded that is still wholesome and safe to eat.

Portioning. A leading cause of food waste in food service and among consumers is buying or preparing more food than is required. The use of packaging allows food to be portioned for variable food quantity demands while giving consumers flexibility to preserve remainders in unopened portions or re-closeable packages.

While portioned packages can increase the total amount of packaging, studies have shown that the increased use of packaging greatly offsets the impact of food that is wasted because it was left unused or uneaten.

Meal Convenience. Today’s consumers are time constrained and look for shortcuts in meal preparation. The emergence of partially or fully prepared packaged meals provides a high level of consumer convenience but, more importantly, reduce the food waste associated with meal preparation.

Food trimmings, skin and bones become waste to consumers and food service providers but, to a food processor, they represent byproducts that can be converted into other useful products. It is not unusual for consumers to generate 10% or more waste during meal preparation.

Freshness Monitoring. Control of temperature, humidity or sanitary conditions is required for many food products to ensure they do not spoil or become contaminated. Packaging systems are emerging that can be integrated with monitoring technologies to ensure the supply chain conditions have been managed to preserve product freshness.

For example, temperature monitoring systems not only give a profile of the temperature history of a distributed food, but can also be used to know remaining shelf life for a perishable product.

All of the solutions above depend on packaging systems to achieve meaningful reductions in food waste. They bring benefits to different points in the food supply chain but they all have been demonstrated to be effective. As a result, packaging is a silent warrior in the fight to reduce food waste.

Packaging should be seen as in investment that provides a positive net impact by protecting the food that we have used our resources to produce. Food producers, retailers, distributors and consumers benefit from supply chains that operate more efficiently while providing social and environmental benefits.

This article is by Ron Cotterman, PhD and Vice President, Sustainability, for Sealed Air. In this global role, he works to advance sustainability initiatives across all of Sealed Air’s business units.