The scale of food waste globally is epic. It is a huge amount of waste. It is probably one of the biggest environmental challenges of our time. Not only because of the food waste itself, but the resources and the cost of that waste. Not only the food that people don’t use and consume, but all the resources wasted going into producing that food.”
Thus said Sealed Air’s sustainability director Alan Adams. He was speaking on the Food Waste Stage at the Australian Waste and Recycling Expo in a session titled The Role of Packaging in Minimising Food Waste. Emceed by FIAL’s manager of food sustainability, Sam Oakden, Adams was joined by the Australian Institute of Packaging’s (AIP) executive director, Nerida Kelton, as well as Mark Barthel, who acts as a special advisor to the Fight Food Waste Cooperative Research Centre (CRC).
Being a plastics packaging specialist, Adams knows that Sealed Air and other companies that use the multi-purpose product are fighting an uphill battle with regard to public perceptions of packaging. Not just plastic, but any type of packaging that is not seen as being biodegradable (at a minimum) or compostable. However, as his title suggests, he, along with the other panellists, champion sustainability.
It is no longer in anybody’s interest to have what can best be described as a laissez faire attitude towards packaging.
For some time now, industry bodies such as the AIP have been pushing for designers to produce smarter and more environmentally friendly packaging. And it’s beginning to pay off. But Adams still belts out statistics that show there is still a long way to go.
“Food that is wasted consumes up to 25 per cent of the world’s potable water,” said Adams. “That’s the environmental cost. Alongside that, the decomposing food we don’t eat generates greenhouse gases, another significant environmental challenge. Then there are the costs including the social cost.
“Every country around the world has some people with food insecurity. It’s criminal that we waste so much food.”
To encourage packaging designers to put their ideas out there, and at the behest of the World Packaging Organisation (WPO), the AIP created the Australasian Packaging Innovation & Design Awards (PIDA).
The awards, which are now in their sixth year, not only reward those designers who think outside the square, but have a more practical purpose – making sure that any ideas that contribute to sustainability and the reduction of food waste become part of the mainstream.
And it’s not just about extending shelf life – although that certainly adds to a reduction in food waste – but other criteria also need to be considered.
A more recent example is how packaging affects people with disabilities.
“If you look at the Arcadis baseline report this year, we have quite high losses in food waste in hospitals and aged care facilities,” said Kelton.
“Anybody designing packaging in Australia and New Zealand has a responsibility to consider this. What we can do to craft better and intuitive designs that can minimise food waste for people who have difficulty opening a package? It is not only the ageing population that has issues with difficult-to-open packaging; it is also people with disabilities, arthritis sufferers and even children. People can’t grip, open or close the product, which can be a huge issue.”
Having spent quite a bit of time in the UK recently, Barthel had some interesting insights into that market – some of which he wishes he could implement here. He worked in a behavioural interventions lab in the UK whereby they spoke to businesses and consumers about some of the challenges around food waste and came up with interesting ideas on how to reduce it.
“For example, with a standard size loaf of bread, we were finding that, more often than not, the last quarter of the loaf was ending up as waste,” said Barthel. “We worked with a couple of bakery companies and tested some visual cues. By the time a consumer got to the last part of the loaf, there was message on the packaging that said ‘freeze me, and toast me later’.
“It was mapping into a clear visual clue. It’s normalising behaviour – in this case freezing bread to store it properly so you don’t waste it.
“It is really a neat piece of behavioural intervention. It’s a combination of understanding behavioural science and how you communicate that science to consumers, and the language, and using visual cues that they will get.”
Adams also came up with an example of the avocado, which made up part of entry in the Save Food Packaging Design Special Award in the PIDAs. One company had packaged avocados in such a way that the shelf life was extended markedly.
“Extending the shelf life of a product should be an obvious thing to do to reduce food waste,” he said. “It gives us more time to consume the product, more time to buy it, more time to enjoy it.
“What this company did was effectively make a guacamole product that had a shelf life of 90 days. An unseen win for this, was that when adding more shelf life, they also increased the processing window of the avocado industry. This enabled the industry to create products they can sell, therefore increasing the amount of harvest it utilised,” Adams said.
A lot of food that is produced, particularly in fresh produce, doesn’t even get off the farm, according to Adams. It doesn’t get sold or a chance to be eaten. Some packaging strategies can enable solutions that can help consumers use a larger slice of harvest.
Kelton also outlined how criteria for the Save Food Packaging Design special awards are evolving, with food waste playing an important part when a product is being considered for an award.
Measures include its resealability, openability, portion control, consumer convenience, extension of shelf life and barrier, recyclability, as well as smart and intelligent packaging and more.
“One of the most discussed criteria at the moment is; how do we meet the 2025 National Packaging targets , offer small portions, and provide consumer convenience?” said Kelton.
“That is where we hope the Save Food Packaging CRC project, led by the AIP, will engage with surveys, research, PhDs etc, as part of a project to better understand how it works and come up with really smart and intuitive design ideas that we can start implementing.”
Another topic covered during the session was that of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs), which all three panellists agreed, that while laborious, are important in the designing process. While LCAs are not mandatory, the amount of information that can be garnered from doing one can be invaluable to both the designer and the customer.
“When it comes to LCAs, very few companies that I come across and I work with have a defined sustainable packaging strategy,” said Adams. “And if you don’t know where you are going, LCAs can be a waste of time, or potentially give the wrong result. I think it is incumbent on all of us to figure out what our objective is for the environment.”
“Optimisation, recycled content, functionality, shelf life extension – all of these things are important when it comes to designing packaging,” said Barthel. “An LCA is a really good way of underpinning that, although in saying that, I would be happy if I never had to do another LCA study in my entire life because they are so detailed. But, they have to be.”
“For the institute, LCAs are really important for all packaging designers and packaging specialists to do,” said Kelton.
“If you are not doing LCAs at the moment, you are going to miss out. How you are going to help customers? Because if you can find what the true impacts are across your value chain, then you can communicate that.
“It’s really important to the tell the customer what you are doing and why you are doing it. If you are extending the shelf life of meat because you are using vacuum packaging, tell them.”
One thing all three agreed on – and has been a theme being pushed by the AIP especially over the past 12 months – is that processors and manufacturers have to do a better job of selling packaging to consumers. A lot of the time it is seen as the “bad boy” of the supermarket shelf space, when in fact most companies are doing their utmost to not only reduce the amount of packaging they use, but also trying to extend the life of on-the-shelf products. Barthel put it succinctly when he summed up the packaging versus food waste conundrum.
Barthel has the last word on where food waste stands in the pecking order of having an effect on greenhouse gas production in the UK, but whose numbers can be easily transposed to Australia, too.
“The latest WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Plan) estimates that the total carbon footprint of food and drink consumed in the UK is 130 million tonnes CO2 eq per year,” he said.
“This is approximately equivalent (eq) to a fifth of UK territorial emissions, or two tonnes of CO2 eq per person per year.
“Excluding emissions from wasted items, the average impact of a tonne of food and drink purchased is 3.4 tonnes CO2 eq, rising to 3.8 tonnes of CO2 eq per tonne of food alone.”