Companies Pivot to Food Packaging Innovations to Cut Waste and Save Millions

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

May 14, 2020

7 Min Read

About 40 percent of the food produced globally gets wasted at some point along the food chain. And according to the food waste reduction think tank ReFED, seeing that food gets to its final destination for consumption has to do largely with packaging. About 25 percent of residential food waste is related to the size and design of packaging, and resolving the problems could help salvage about 280,000 tons of food waste worth $882 million.

Waste360 talked to Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director at the Dow Chemical Company, about how companies are pivoting to the use of enhanced plastic packaging and other advanced packaging designs to extend shelf life while diverting more food from landfills. Wooster shares some companies’ innovations, including Dow’s own, and touches on issues unique to addressing food waste at each step along the supply chain.

Waste360: How are companies working to address food waste, and what is the role packaging can play?

Jeff Wooster: There is no question, food waste is a huge problem globally. To address it, companies are pivoting to the use of enhanced plastic packaging, which preserves perishable foods and lengthens their shelf lives. Portion packaging, for example, allows both food service operators and consumers to open only the portion of the food that will be used immediately and leave the rest securely packaged for consumption later.

Waste360: What are issues unique to addressing food waste at each step along the supply chain, and how are they being addressed?

Jeff Wooster: One of the causes of food waste is a lack of proper packaging. Food can spoil at various stages of the supply chain as it moves from farms to consumers. The good news is that there are a variety of ways to prevent food waste throughout the supply chain, starting with preserving food at the farm by using materials like plastic silage wraps, which preserve and enrich livestock feed. Similar types of wraps can also help protect and preserve farm goods during transport from the fields to the processing plants.

And food waste can be reduced during the processing stage with innovative plastic packaging that can enable fast and accurate packaging with reduced line waste and less chance for contamination than unpackaged foods. Once food reaches supermarkets, materials like high-barrier plastic packaging can help prolong shelf life, keeping foods fresher and safer longer.

Extended shelf life is also important once the food reaches the consumer, whether to allow dry foods to stay fresh and dry in the pantry or to keep oxygen-sensitive foods fresh longer in the refrigerator. One recognizable example of packaging designed specifically to prevent food waste once it arrives in consumers’ homes is resealable plastic packaging, like zippered cheese bags, which keep shredded cheese fresh during distribution and even after opening and re-closing in the consumer’s refrigerator.

Waste360: Can you elaborate on the plastics industry’s innovations to help reduce food waste and the improvements these innovations achieve?

Jeff Wooster: Some of the tangible strides to reduce food waste are, again, innovations in packaging that enable the freshness of foods to be preserved by extending shelf life. Highly perishable foods like meat, dairy, produce, and nuts are all good candidates for the use of high-performance packaging.

In addition to ways to offer pre-portioned servings and packaging with stronger resealability qualities, the industry is working to reinvent and enhance inherent properties in plastic that have improved the toughness and security of airtight seals. This type of packaging ensures food safety as products move through the supply chain. For instance, at Dow we’ve created the Affinity polyolefin plastomer product line, which is used in packaged food such as bagged lettuce. This product line helps extend the shelf life of products like lettuce that require a controlled atmosphere to allow the proper exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the package and the environment to maintain freshness.

The Affinity product line offers excellent adhesion strength at high and low temperatures, maintaining the integrity of the packaging. The plastic technology provides advanced sealant performance for just about any packaging application — meats, cheeses, fresh-cut produce, dry foods, and even flowable material pouches.

Waste360: Can you speak about what seems to be a growing number of companies that are finding ways to make use of food that would otherwise be wasted? What are some success stories?

Jeff Wooster: In the past few years we’ve seen many new companies arise with missions to reduce food waste through rescuing food that might have otherwise been deemed unworthy to consume or judged too unattractive to sell in supermarkets. Two such companies that have made significant strides in their efforts to reduce food waste are Loop and Imperfect Foods. Companies focused on upcycling ingredients can have a huge impact on our efforts to reduce food waste globally.

Beyond rescuing good, edible food, these companies have contributed to the growing consumer awareness of wasted food. Consumers and restaurant operators can play a strong role here as well by ensuring that food that would otherwise go to waste is eaten. A simple example is adding yesterday’s vegetables to today’s vegetable soup, ensuring that a small portion of leftovers isn’t thrown away.

Waste360: What is Dow doing to help companies prevent food waste, and how else is it supporting food manufacturers’ sustainability work?

Jeff Wooster: In 2005 we announced a sustainability goal to achieve at least three breakthroughs that will significantly help solve the world’s major challenges, including affordable and adequate food supply. Since that time, we’ve dedicated significant time and resources to developing better packaging to extend and protect food life cycles.

We’re also focusing on building designs that enable fully recyclable packaging. For example, last year we partnered with Bear Naked, a leading breakfast food brand, to roll out fully recyclable packaging for its granola and granola bites. Bear Naked used Dow’s RecycleReady technology, which meets the recycling standards of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle label and makes it compatible for existing polyethylene recycling streams, such as grocery store drop-off programs in the U.S. So instead of shipping empty granola pouches to TerraCycle in Trenton, N.J., consumers can now drop off their recyclable packaging at their local grocery store or other retailer. Not only is the packaging now fully recyclable, but it also has enhanced barrier properties, resulting in better retention of freshness and flavors.

Our flexible plastic packaging solutions, like the material we created for Bear Naked Granola, help reduce food waste by keeping food fresher and safer for longer in a variety of portion sizes and resealable packs.

Waste360: How can businesses and organizations play a role in preventing food waste beyond investments in certain types of packaging?

Jeff Wooster: To really reduce food waste on a global scale will require meaningful collaboration across entities. Businesses must focus on convening and adopting collaborative efforts between their corporate peers, governments, and NGOs [nongovernment organizations]. At Dow, for instance, we work closely with the Montgomery Food Bank in Texas to deliver what has been rejected from grocery stores to the Food Bank’s produce rescue center. There, it’s sorted. Good produce is packaged in materials to extend shelf life and is delivered to communities where there are food shortages, while spoiled produce is sent for composting.

We also partnered with other organizations to build a chilled trailer to ensure we’re able to get the packaged produce to more communities. And we’ve helped the Montgomery Food Bank develop a sustained plastic recycling program, whereby the food bank gets paid to recycle various plastic materials that enter the produce rescue center.

Waste360: What needs to be considered in order to create effective systemwide approaches?

Jeff Wooster: Companies must focus on investments in technologies that enhance the effectiveness of the total packaging system. It will be impossible to see real, seismic improvements to our current food waste problem if companies try to cut corners and economize by selecting end-to-end packaging materials that are cheaper instead of optimizing value by providing improved product protection.

When looking for food packaging that is built to make food last, both performance in use and life cycle environmental footprint factors should play a part. By optimizing a package for the whole distribution channel, we can get the most value and nutrition out of the food we grow and ensure that the resources used to produce it are not wasted. To reduce food waste and achieve an environmental and economic benefit, in most instances it’s better to prioritize high-quality plastic food packaging.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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