What has packaging got to do with Food Waste?

Food waste is a major challenge involving the entire value chain. The main culprit is however and without doubt found at consumer level.
This is a complex problem but part of the solution lies in using better and more suitable packaging.

We simply can’t afford the current level of food wasted. Exactly how much is wasted is impossible to say, but a global estimate is more than 1 billion tons of food that is somehow lost or wasted on a yearly basis. That is about one staggering third of the global food production! Better adapted packaging is part of the solution.


The problem
This loss and wastage occur on all steps in the food supply chain but if we stay in the developed world a whole lot of food is wasted in the end of the road from the famous farm to the fork. The main culprit seems to be found at the final consumption stage, in our homes. But also, the other steps along the chain are involved in this.

A very recent report from Swedish Naturvårdsverket is mapping out the current Food Waste situation in the country. And it is not pretty. In 2018 about 1.3 million tons of food waste was generated in Sweden. This is an average of 133 kilos of food waste per person. As the graph clearly illustrates the main problem lies in the hands of the end-consumers in the households.

The problem isn’t easily pin pointed and solved as it involves all engaged in the consumption, production and distribution chain. But packaging is part of the problem and therefore also part of the solution.


The packaging link
This is a waste we can’t afford when we are going from 7 billion people to become 10 billion of us, not in Sweden but on the planet, in 2050. If we instead of increasing food production and cultivate vast new areas could save a third of what we today produce, we would in theory solve the problem to feed the growing world population.

The massive waste of food in the households has many reasons. Too little shopping planning and lack of pantry and fridge management to start with and perhaps food is too cheap and available. But as much as 20-25% of consumer food waste could be related to packaging.

The packaging is a part of the problem when ineffective packaging is used.

  • This could be about size, too big or a multi-pack, simply too much product and more than you can or want to consume.
  • It could be the lack of possibilities to re-seal the opened packaging and the content gets exposed and destroyed.
  • It could be packaging that can’t be shut tight enough and oxygen, light or something spoils the product.
  • Not clear enough instructions about storage, with the result that a product is kept too warm too cold, is part of the story.
  • Packaging that is hard to empty or confusion around the date labelling of a product.

Or it could be too ambitious light weighting that can lead to packaging that simply isn’t good enough to withstand a bumpy ride to the destination.
To mention a few. Much of the above comes to structural design of packaging but a lot of food is wasted because of the confusion about “best before” and” use by” date labels. One day we will have dynamic best before dates with built in sensors showing the actual best before date rather than a fixed one. But we are not quite there yet.


The solution
Apart from consumers improving their fridge management and doing more organized shopping the packaging industry can offer better packaging solutions. And food producers can use it…!

So, what is more effective packaging then? What I mean is packaging that is

  • Re-sealable. That is a screw cap, a zip-lock or something that enables the consumer to save product for later.
  • Easy emptying. Think of how to make it easier to empty the pack. It can be instructions on how to or a packaging feature like a collapsible container.
  • Modified or Controlled Atmosphere (MAP/CAP) these are technologies used to keep fresh food fresh for longer and adds real value by extending shelf-life.
  • Barrier materials. Use packaging with good enough barriers to oxygen, light or whatever is breaking down the content. The result is again extended shelf-life and less food waste.
  • Portion packages. This is a low hanging but effective fruit. By using smaller portion packs, the small household gets a better control of usage.
  • Smart packaging solutions of various kinds are helpful. Smart labels indicating time or temperature, ripeness for fruit, freshness for meat, fish, etc.

Technology is developing enabling new and better packaging solutions. Sensors are coming down in price and new creative concepts are brought forward by entrepreneurs.
But it hasn’t all have to be hi-tech, a cucumber has a “best before” life of 3 days and by wrapping it in plastic it increases by almost 5 times, to 14 days. Portion packs may require more packaging material but will probably save food from being wasted.

And the greenhouse gas emissions or GHGE related to food packaging is typically small, typically around 5%, relative to the emissions associated with producing and processing the food itself.

A cup is a cup is a cup… Not really!

It’s a bit more complicated. Last year we used 264 billion paper cups according to Imarc. This translates to a number of trees, an amount of water, a quantity of energy and a number for the miles transport needed. No doubt, it’s not for free from a climate point of view. This fact has gotten quite a lot of attention during the last few years, maybe with a peak two years ago, when consumers questioned the use of single-use cups.

Another perspective on this comes from a recent, 2019, LCA study carried out by VTT or Technical Research Centre of Finland. The study shows that the paper-based coffee cup is performing quite well for carbon dioxide compared to the alternatives. The comparison was to reusable cups in different materials. But this footprint can be significantly improved by properly recycling the emptied latte cup.

The LCA consequences will of course depend on how the cup is made up, the amount and type of plastic used for lining and also what recycling facilities are available. We are using quite a few of these single use cups and recycling and reusing material is key to a circular economy. The average cup is not easily recycled, many plants have a challenge to separate the plastic from the paper.

This recycling situation is improving. Last year Stora Enso announced that they could successfully recycle used paper cups at their plant in both Sweden and in Belgium. They declared that used paper cups could be used as valuable raw material and be recycled into white-lined chipboard (WLC).

Recycling facilities can be expanded in many ways. This is proved by the London based charity organisation Hubbub. Together with Starbucks they launched ‘The Cup Fund’ to support paper cup recycling in the UK.  Enough money has been raised, by the voluntary 5p charge added to single use coffee cups, to build recycling facilities to handle 4 million cups yearly. Every little helps.

There are other solutions available. Ball, the leading supplier of beverage cans, is testing aluminium cups as an infinitely recyclable alternative to the single use cup. They started last year and now they will be used for serving beverages at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami during Superbowl. A stiff drink, or at least a sturdy cup.

Finally, it is important to remember that of that cup of latte only 4% of the climate impact comes from the single use cup. 96% still comes from what’s in the cup, the coffee and the milk. So, enjoy the latte and don’t forget to recycle the cup. And do finish it to minimise food waste and the climate effect of your brew.

Print me a Pretzel, Pronto

3D printing has changed the world as we knew it and is said to spark the third industrial revolution. When a 3D printer for home use is available for less than $1000 it won’t take long before it becomes mainstream. Which is both fun and inspiring.

But what is more interesting than fun, at least for the moment, is 3D printing of food. Yes you can seriously print food, layer on layer. Not for home use yet though. The need originates from the question, “How to feed an astronaut on his way to Pluto?” Apparently there is now printable food stuff available with a best before date somewhere around 2044 or just after you are safely back again from outer space.

3DfoodAt present the main reason for printing food is the Star Trekiness and the coolness factor. But there are a few things speaking for this technology of printing food products. I am not saying home-printing is around the corner but the technology does enable us to use ingredients such as proteins from algae, beet leaves, or even insects. With a growing global population to feed this could be one of the answers we are looking for.

It is also a way to truly personalise food. If you are sensitive to certain ingredients you can design and make your own food with your own formula. Great for people with allergies and similar.

The convenience factor, that offers food made at exactly the right moment in time. You set the machine for dinner and activate the thing with an app as you leave work and upon arrival you have a freshly printed steak. All you have to do now is to ask your local grocer to fax you a bottle of wine.

Printing your own food will give you and your favourite restaurant an enormous freedom to design both shape and content. Apart from the technical challenges there are a few cultural as well. Are we ready for printed provisions? You could probably survive on a daily pill of concentrated nutrition but we don’t want to do that. This is different but still far away from the main stream.

So, what has this got to do with packaging? Well, nothing much but it is still intriguing.

Slip sliding away

Liquiglide to the right
Liquiglide to the right

Is this the best idea since sliced bread? It is definitely a good one, no doubt.  It’s LiquiGlide “that makes anything – syrup, ketchup, paint – slide right out of the bottle so you don’t waste a drop.” By making the inner walls of a container slippery you can easily empty the entire content. This will save you from wasting unnecessarily lots of product, in many cases a stunning 10-20% is chucked and wasted with the “empty”.

This could be one of the solutions needed for stemming the flood of food wasted for no sensible reasons. I don’t think I need to go into the stats around the problem, it’s simply huge. What might be a new piece of information however is that an estimated 20-25% off food waste is to refer to packaging. That is packaging that is not good enough for its purpose. Under performing packaging that is not sturdy enough, not tight enough, not protective enough, etc.

A lot can be done to this acute problem from the packaging side. We need better materials, better solutions, better features and more resources put into innovation. Above all we need better understanding of how to use the available materials, solutions and features.

This invention, LiquiGlide, will not solve the food waste problem but it is definitely a good step on that way. http://www.liquiglide.com/

Close the door!

This annoying little thing has been developed to save energy but could double as saving food. http://bit.ly/nYNrQa

We have a huge and global food waste problem with many dimensions. Developed markets, undeveloped markets, production, distribution, consumption, etc. One of the problem areas is consumers throwing out food they once brought home. Some of these decisions to reject are simply based on the best before mark while others based on using their senses.

My point is that with this great little device you will manage your fridge better and keep the door shut and therefore in the end save food from degrading and being unnecessary wasted. Well this won’t save the world but every little helps. Food waste is a big and disturbing problem in a world where famine is an ever present and also growing problem.

A waste rate of 33% is hardly acceptable in any industry

The United Nations said today in a report that about 1.3 billion tons of food is lost or wasted every year, which amounts to roughly one third of all the food produced for human consumption. http://bit.ly/mcFGHo

This is a totally unacceptable situation that hits the poor and vulnerable the hardest.

According to the report, food losses occur as a result of inefficiencies in food production and processing operations that diminish supplies. This is obviously a complex situation but the situation can be dramatically improved by using appropriate packaging solutions. Ruben Rausing said at his time the “Packaging should save more than it costs”. This is a very good example where packaging can make that difference.

Food waste, by contrast, is when retailers and consumers throw edible food in the trash. Consumers in rich nations waste a combined 222 million tons a year, according to the report. That’s almost as much as all the food produced in sub-Saharan Africa.