Packaging as part of the food waste solution

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While there are clear humanitarian, environmental and economic reasons to reduce food waste, the solutions to the problem are not as clear. We spoke to Karl Deily, President of Sealed Air Food Care to hear his views on how to best address this problem.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that one third of all food produced globally each year is wasted.

Food waste also has major environmental implications. According to the World Resources Institute, if global food wastage were a country, it would rank only behind China and the US as the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter.

In Australia, according to the Federal Government, consumers waste 20 per cent of food they buy, while the commercial and industrial sectors waste around three million tonnes of food annually. All this is estimated to cost the Australian economy $20 billion a year.

The Federal Government has committed to reducing Australia’s food waste by 50 per cent by 2030. It will hold a National Food Waste summit involving government, industry, academia and the not-for-profit sector in November this year. The government has flagged the possibility of introducing incentives to reduce the amount of food ending up as landfill.

In other words, there has never been a better time than now for industry to address the problem. With this in mind, Food & Beverage Industry News caught up with Karl Deily, President of Sealed Air Food Care (pictured below) to hear his views.

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Where and why?

First off, Deily explained that food loss and food waste are two distinct things. The former includes food that is lost during harvesting, while the latter covers waste by the processor, retailer or consumer.

While food loss is still a significant problem in the developing world, Deily explained that it is not as significant in developed economies. “In modern economies around the world most of the food is lost at the retailer and consumer level,” he said. “At the retailer it can be as high as 12 – 15 per cent, with some produce items as high as 30 per cent on a weight basis. When you look at calories wasted, dairy and meat products are significant contributors.”

There are a number of causes for the food waste problem. At the consumer level, much of it comes down to a lack of awareness.

According to Deily, while Australia ranks relatively highly in this regard, globally “most consumers don’t feel that they’re responsible for food waste, or its not high on their agenda but they feel they contribute to it.”

In actual fact, throwing out food has a significant impact.

“If a consumer throws away 2kg of meat they’re not just throwing away the meat. They’re also throwing away over 2,000 litres of water, 1kg of grain, 23kg of CO2 emission that it took to produce the product, process it distribute it and get it to the consumer,” said Deily.

At the retail level, the causes of food waste are more complex. The issue of “ugly produce” or food that does not meet the cosmetic standards of retailers (or consumers) is one important factor. According to Deily, shelf life is another. Too often, supermarkets find themselves having to either mark down prices as products approach their “best by” dates or, worse still, throw away food that has passed this date.

“Everyone is grappling with the difference between best before date, use buy date, sell by date, etc. These can all be very confusing,” said Deily. “They’re based on a statistical model, [whereby] if you have a sell by date and the food is thrown away, 50 per cent of the food you are throwing away is perfectly good because you have to determine an average life for the product.”

He pointed to a proposal to simplify the system by introducing a clear “Expires On” date which would only be used for foods such as meat where food safety can’t be compromised.

Other foods, like yoghurt, would carry only a “Best if used by” date. Consumers would be encouraged to use their discretion (and senses) to work out if such foods are still okay.

Solutions

According to Deily, reducing food waste requires an end-to-end approach.

“We have to have logistics that protect the product through transportation. We have to have technologies that enable the retailer to merchandise the product in a way that minimises waste. Then we have to come up with labelling and information that resonates with the consumer,” he said.

According to Deily, packaging can be part of the solution.

“If you show consumers a cucumer unwrapped then show them one wrapped, they’ll say they want the unpackaged product because plastic has got to be bad for the environment,” he said.

However, what they don’t factor in is the fact that the packaged item lasts two to three times longer than the unpackaged item. Therefore it is more likely to make it to the consumer and less likely to end up as landfill where it will rot and produce methane (a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2).

Deily added that in the case of meat, when the whole supply chain is considered, the carbon foot print of the product may be up to 300-400 times larger than that of its packaging. “So we look at what technologies can we use to extend the life of the product as long as possible,” he said.

Emerging technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT) will play an important role in reducing food waste.

According to Deily, IoT can help with tracking product, monitoring product temperature, and even with inventory and management control.

“IoT through connectivity and Quick Response (QR) or bar coding can ensure the oldest product is shipped and consumed first. And that there is better coordination between what is sold at retail and what is needed to be produced for replenishment of stock,” he said.

This technology can even help the consumer.

“We’re working on some QSR code technologies through the IoT which will drive an improved engagement with the consumer and the products they buy. This will enable the consumer to better understand how to use it, how to cook it and whether it’s okay to freeze at the end of its shelf-life,” said Deily.

Benefits for businesses

Apart from its humanitarian and environmental costs, food waste makes bad business sense.

“Globally, it’s estimated that 1.2 billion kg of meat is thrown out at retail every year… Businesses are throwing away over US$9b of product that they don’t sell,” said Deily.

The good news is that cost and waste reduction go hand-in-hand.

To illustrate the pointed Deily pointed to a study Sealed Air did for a UK retailer. By changing the package format in just one food category the retailer was able to reduce the amount of food they were throwing away by 350,000kg and provide a new package format that appealed to the consumer. This equated to an increase of value of US$19m from reduced food waste and increased product sales.

“We have data to show that every dollar you invest to minimise food waste there is about a $14 return on investment,” said Deily. “This is why prevention is preferred over strategies that either recycle or recover food that is about to become waste.”

Sealed Air

Deily pointed out that Sealed Air, predominantly a plastic packaging supplier, is judged by some as part of the problem. But he maintains the company is part of the solution.

For example, the company’s award winning Cryovac Darfresh on Tray more than doubles the shelf life of red meat when compared to the standard Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) process. In addition, it produces no film scrap and up to 40 per cent less material waste.

Another product, the Cryovac Freshness Plus film includes components which absorb oxygen before it reaches the product thereby enabling significant shelf life extension of products such as avocado and bakery goods.

Food waste at the manufacturing level can be effectively managed through improved process technology. Deily explained that this is because the sector operates in a closed environment and can therefore ensure that all processes are monitored and controlled.

Pork producers, for example, make it their business to market and merchandise almost every part of the animal. Apart from food for human consumption, they produce animal food and can even make fertiliser through blood recovery techniques.

“A lot of the loss for processors is just losing some of the economic value, so we work a lot with customers on making sure they maintain the highest value of their product by improving the yields and operational efficiency,” said Deily.

For example, Sealed Air has implemented technologies for deboning a turkey breast as thoroughly and efficiently as possible. The company works in processing plants to help in ways that (directly or indirectly) help reduce waste.

Finally, Deily mentioned Sealed Air’s efforts to reduce food waste by smarter portioning. “We look to deliver product that can be portioned in smaller portions, in a manner that is good for the whole value chain.”

Around the world Sealed Air’s new packaging solutions and technologies are being recognised. Closer to home in Australia and New Zealand, Cryovac Darfresh for fresh pork and Cryovac Freshness Plus for fresh avocado won the votes of the judging panel at the 2016 and 2017 ANZ Save Food Packaging Awards. Each solution was able to significantly extend the shelf life, enable wider food distribution and access, all while reducing food waste.

Darfresh On Tray.
Darfresh On Tray.