What comes to mind when you hear about environmental ramifications of food packaging? If your bailiwick is sustainability, you probably think about the waste these containers leave behind once they serve their short-lived purpose and then get tossed. Rarely do we hear about the food waste associated with package design, much less about how to mitigate that waste. It's an issue some sustainability stakeholders are paying more and more attention to.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

October 26, 2023

5 Min Read
How Packaging Designs Can Save Both Materials and Food

What comes to mind when you hear about environmental ramifications of food packaging? If your bailiwick is sustainability, you probably think about the waste these containers leave behind once they serve their short-lived purpose and then get tossed. Rarely do we hear about the food waste associated with package design, much less about how to mitigate that waste. But it’s an issue some sustainability stakeholders are paying more and more attention to.

A ReFED analysis shows that changes to packaging, including packaging design, can help divert 1.1 million tons of food waste a year while eliminating 6 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

As much as 15 percent of condiments end up in the trash because that last bit in the container is nearly impossible to extract. Meats, vegetables, and other perishables also go to waste that could have been salvaged if their packaging had been designed to preserve them.

“Food waste is a huge contributor to climate change because of all the energy and resources that it requires to produce, even more so than packaging waste,” says Olga Kachook, Sustainable Packaging Coalition director.

“Yet most companies aren't thinking about these two problems together. And almost none are setting goals to reduce food waste in consumers' homes or design packaging that actively prevents food waste,” she says.

The industry is more focused on whether a single-use container is recyclable and, while that's important, she notes, packaging also has a huge job to do in terms of protecting contents and extending shelf life. It can even be used as a tool to educate consumers about how to store edibles properly to prevent spoilage.

A report put out by environmental nonprofit GreenBlue describes evolving options such as resealability features, freezer-ready meat and poultry packaging, and designs that hold smaller portions. Think of the round containers filled with foil-wrapped Camembert wedges – an alternative to the huge chunk that often inevitably turns crusty and stale.  

Some high-tech food-saving solutions include active and intelligent packaging. Active packaging lengthens a product’s shelf life while intelligent or smart packaging relays information about quality.

Active packaging can serve well to save perishables like meat, poultry, and dairy. These designs may contain agents that absorb certain volatiles, control moisture, and or reduce bacterial growth.

Intelligent packaging may have sensors embedded in it to help businesses track the quality of perishable foods, as well as digital connectivity to provide visibility to consumers.

Together, active and intelligent packaging designs could generate $1.74 billion in net financial benefit while reducing food waste by 452,000 tons annually, GreenBlue reports.

Active packaging in particular may also open up more opportunity for recyclability by incorporating polyolefins and polyesters. These polymers would replace commonly used chlorinated plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that materials recovery facilities can’t handle.

Truly innovative solutions will not ignore recoverability, the GreenBlue report authors punctuate.

Packaging designers should aim for a balance between mitigating food waste and mitigating waste from materials that are not recyclable. That balance is uncommon today. Spent zippers, lids, films, and ties, which all work well as food-saving resealers, typically can’t be recycled. For now, closures and resealable packaging can at least be tested to determine if features like barcodes and tags will be problematic for processing facilities.

Packing size is a consideration. The number of people in the average U.S. household has declined, yet packaging sizes are not necessarily designed with this trend in mind; though when they are they can have payoffs. Remember the cheese wedges? GreenBlue’s report points to the results of a lifecycle analysis showing that although portioning the product into six sections requires 3.3 more grams of composite paper, the reduction in emissions from avoided food waste is about four to five times higher than emissions associated with the extra packaging.

These innovations have been slow to roll out, partly because more research is needed to finetune many of them and partly because some of the new technologies that have come online are expensive. 

“But we don't need to wait for cheaper technologies, better materials, or more data, because some of the strategies to help consumers reduce food waste are available today at low or no cost,” Kachook says.

Following best practices about date labeling  or adding storage instructions to a product is free and doesn't require a packaging redesign. 

The latter approach—leveraging the package to educate consumers—is especially important, says Joachim Kircher, senior manager denkstatt.

“Consumers have a very important role in the mitigation of packaging waste. With their day-to-day buying decisions, which include choosing the packaging option for the purchased products, they influence business decisions on what packaging options to offer,” Kircher says.

Information for consumers should include the influence of packaging on food waste, the value of food in general and the correct and best packaging disposal option, he advises.

Brands' marketing teams should develop motivating messaging for both on-pack and as part of broader campaigns to encourage consumers to store items correctly and use up a product rather than waste it. Even retailers can do in-store messaging and campaigns that teach consumers what "use by" and "best if used by" mean, Kachook says.

On average, only 3 to 3.5 percent of the climate impact of packaged food comes from the packaging itself.

Take meal kits as an example, says Angel Veza, senior manager, Capital, Innovation & Engagement, ReFED. 

“Meal kits can have a lot of secondary packaging, but they're designed to reduce food waste at the household level, where most of the wasted food is generated,” she says.

According to a University of Michigan Study, meal kits generate about 33 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than grocery store equivalents, despite the additional packaging due to the planned portions.

 

In short, packaging can be designed both to curb food waste and to be recoverable so that they can be reborn rather than get buried or burned.

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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