As consumer awareness of the magnitude of food waste grows, Sealed Air’s Ron Cotterman says the time for retailers to implement more effective preventive measures is now.
Across the globe, one-third of the food we produce is wasted each year. That equates to some 1.3 billion tonnes of food, causing both economic losses and significant damage to the environment, according to the United Nations.
Where and how that food is wasted differs from country to country. In developing nations, most of the food waste occurs during the production phase (due to lack of sufficient refrigeration and poor infrastructure), with very little waste on the consumer side. More developed countries are very efficient at moving food to the point of processing and retailing, but large amounts of waste is occurring at the consumer side.
To highlight this growing issue of food waste, and to explore the opportunities that using innovative packaging can bring to retailers and consumers, leading packaging company Sealed Air recently released a report, Taking Action to Tackle Food Waste Challenges, as part of its commitment to reducing food waste.
The report highlighted the current impact of food waste in Australia and New Zealand, which currently stands at 8.3 million tonnes annually, at a retail value of $9.5 billion. In the average Australian and New Zealand household, consumers are essentially throwing $1000 worth of food in the bin each year.
The leading cause of consumer and retail food waste, according to Sealed Air’s vice president of sustainability Ron Cotterman, is the increasing amount of fresh foods demanded by consumers and their inherently perishable nature. “When you look at fresh food there is more wastage because a portion of the food will typically spoil or expire before it can be consumed,” he said. “So when it comes to opportunities to reduce food waste, [one solution] is actually to protect food so that it stays fresh for longer.
“In other words, increase the shelf life or the freshness of that food that otherwise might spoil. If you could make that last a week, two weeks or even longer, and maintain that freshness, you have a greater chance of reducing the amount of food that gets wasted across the supply chain. That is either in retail or food service but also increasing the amount of food that gets consumed in our households.”
According to Sealed Air’s study, 83 per cent of retailers in Australia and 90 per cent of retailers in New Zealand believe shelf life is critical to reducing shrink. When it comes to an increase in profits by controlling shrink, Australian retailers forecast this to be four per cent, while retailers in New Zealand forecast six per cent.
Sealed Air is taking action to address this is by offering food processors and retailers packaging solutions that extend shelf life, improve food safety and consequently lower costs. One example of this is Cryovac Darfresh; a vacuum packaging that provides a unique combination of longer shelf life and more dramatic product presentation. In this innovative package, the food product itself enables the finished package to have a smooth, skin-tight appearance that appeals to consumers while also giving them more time to enjoy the fresh product.
But packaging is just one solution to the food waste problem. Today, most retailers respond to the crisis when products are close to expiration and need to be consumed or donated in some way. However, Cotterman said alternative action can be taken. “We are seeing a number of retailers participating with organisations to donate food so that it doesn’t end up going to a landfill or disposed of in another way, but there is another action that retailers can take,” he said.
“That action is to look at the food they are wasting and prevent that waste in the first place. In other words, better analytics, better inventory management to know what food categories are spoiling and why, and to then work to extend shelf life so that food ultimately does not need to be donated,” he said.
“The ability to be ahead is key to extending shelf life, labelling food properly and then informing the consumer about the best ways to store and use that food.”
Traditionally, Sealed Air has focused on its state-of-the-art methods of extending the shelf life of foods through packaging solutions. But more recently, it has been trying to understand how data from the supply chain can be utilised and what kind of data and measurements it can make within its customers’ facilities. Ultimately this will flow through to retail, and hopefully in the future to consumers to ensure transparency in the entire supply chain.
“We talk a lot about the Internet of Things (IoT) and data, but let’s apply that very specifically to the amount of food that is being wasted,” said Cotterman. “Let’s use the techniques that are available in other market sectors and apply them to the food industry to manage one of our most valuable resources: fresh, nutritious food.”
“The retail supply chain will have a key role in reducing food waste; predominantly that’s through data management. So, understanding the sources of food waste across the supply chain and the interventions that can occur across those points is going to be absolutely key.”
When it comes to the role of consumers in reducing food waste, education is pivotal in helping them recognise the problem and to consequently drive behaviour that will result in less waste. As part of this effort, Sealed Air is investigating how it can address consumer misconceptions around packaging and its effect on the environment.
The company conducted a Harris Poll that revealed nine out of 10 consumers view packaging to be worse for the environment than food waste. In reality, said Cotterman, the opposite is true.
“If you do a very analytical study and look at the environmental impact of food waste, and compare that to the environmental impact of packaging, you can show that food waste is significantly worse, almost an order of magnitude greater than the environmental impact of the packaging used to protect it. So we have been looking how we can use information on the packaging that informs the consumer why certain products are packaged the way they are.”
“We think that by educating the consumer on the value of increasing the shelf life and providing extra time and convenience in the use of that food, will ultimately give them the ability to reduce the amount of food that they waste,” he said.
Confusion over labelling is also a big contributor to food waste. Terms such as ‘use by’, ‘sell by’ and ‘best by’ are used interchangeably by processers, and create a lot of confusion, causing consumers to throw food away before it is actually spoiling.
One solution being addressed today by governments and industry experts is standardising and clarifying food date labelling. As a result the two standards occurring globally now are ‘best if used by’ and ‘expires on’. The first is used for food that reaches a maximum freshness by a certain time period but is still safe to consume for some period after that date. The second tells the consumer that after that date, the food may no longer be safe to eat and consequently should be discarded.
The driving message around food waste, concludes Cotterman, is that no single company or country is capable of tackling the issue alone. Governments, businesses and organisations need to collaborate to ensure a more sustainable future.
“We are seeing large groups forming and coming together to try and determine where and why food is being wasted across the supply chain. [They are looking at] what sort of interventions, what sort innovations and what sort of technologies can be applied to the food waste they are identifying, how this can be prevented and how more food can flow through that system to the consumer,” he said.
“Innovation, education and collaboration. By aligning efforts to prevent food waste, we can work together across the supply chain to come up with methods to reduce the amount of waste and its impacts. This is good news for consumers, for the environment and for business.”