Food waste issues – can packaging play a part?

By Mark Shaw, new product development technical manager, Parkside

FOOD waste is attracting significant attention around the globe and with good reason. Food waste is having devastating environmental, economic and humanitarian consequences on an enormous scale, a level of global destruction that will continue to grow unless there is a worldwide change in attitude, thinking and application. 

Many studies in recent years have found around 20-40% of all food produced globally goes uneaten, and the UN estimates about 1.3 billion tonnes of edible food is lost globally every year. With many people throughout the world struggling to eat daily, this is an alarming statistic. The UN estimates saving a quarter of the edible food wasted would be enough to feed 870 million people. 

This startling amount of waste, however, is now having a significant and detrimental effect on the climate. Alongside squandering precious resources such as water, land, energy, labour and money, food waste needlessly produces masses of greenhouse gases that directly contribute to climate change. Food waste is also responsible for the same level of carbon emissions as road transport, generating around 8.2% of all greenhouse gases. The same study from the UN stated that if food waste were its own country, it would be the world’s third most significant contributor to climate change behind China and the US!

In truth, these figures are shockingly high but, as an industry, packaging can do much more to make a difference. By improving knowledge at the base of the problem, the industry can begin to produce new packaging technologies that help reduce food waste and thereby restore economic losses, counteract climate change and prevent hunger issues. 

Food Waste v Plastic Packaging 

A common misconception surrounding the food waste debate is the impact of plastics. According to a study by Denkstatt, the negative impact of food waste is five times higher on average than the impact of those producing and utilising plastic packaging. This shows the benefits of using plastic packaging to prevent food waste far outweigh the benefits of not using it. Plastic packaging also plays a significant role in preventing the damage and spoilage of food in the retail store and at home. This includes physical protection to prevent handling damage, barrier protection to delay spoilage, security features to prevent tampering or contamination, properties to promote product stability and efficient portion control. At its simplest, packaging protects the product to avoid food waste – but is it going far enough?  

Rethink Food Waste through Economics and Data (ReFED) found that if we continue to adopt new packaging technologies that prolong shelf life, there is a potential to divert 72,000 tonnes of food waste a year from landfills in the US alone. 

One area packaging technologies must continue to develop is in portioning convenience. This is key to reducing waste in the latter stages of the supply chain and ensuring consumers are using the food they purchase. Research by John Hopkins discovered consumers show more interest in packaging designed to reduce food waste, with resealable packaging ranking as top choice.

Innovative packaging solutions that enable the consumer to save leftovers for future use are also popular. Responding to these needs, Parkside Flexibles has developed a mono polymer PET reclose lidding film solution with built-in reclose technology aimed at reducing food waste in the home. Suitable for meat, fish, cheese, prepared fruits and produce, it also eliminates the need for secondary packaging, such as stretch wrap, once the consumer wants to store unused contents. Of course, if we’re thinking sustainably, then a PET container with mono PET lidding film is also fully recyclable.

A Misguided Perception 

Despite the abundance of evidence to suggest plastic packaging can help reduce food waste, there remains one significant obstacle – negative consumer perception. According to a study by the Waste and Resources Action Programme, 81% of consumers surveyed believe packaging is a major environmental problem, with 57% feeling it is unnecessary. Growing consumer interest in ecological issues alongside these views has encouraged many brands and packaging providers to take well-intentioned, yet ultimately, misguided actions to change pack formats having unintended negative environmental impacts in terms of increasing resource use, carbon footprint or food waste issues.

These attitudes show that we, as an industry, still have much to do in terms of educating the consumer. At the core, consumers must understand there are far more detrimental issues than packaging affecting our planet, including the devastating nature of food waste. Although ultimately consumer attitudes and habits determine brand behaviour, better packaging solutions and information can help us successfully combat this problem. 

Nevertheless, as we develop these new technologies and aim to change perceptions, it remains essential that we strive towards creating a circular economy, which enables the efficient processing of plastic waste, eradicating its exposure to natural wildlife environments. To this end, Parkside has created its Sustainability Portfolio, a range of flexible packaging solutions that reduces food waste and can be disposed of in already established recycling systems. The range comprises of the award-winning Park2Nature range of compostable packaging, alongside innovations in standard and resealable flexible packaging, which include over 30% recycled material content and can be easily recycled in existing infrastructures.