The link between food waste and packaging

ShutterstockGoncharov Artem
Bulgarian pepper in a box on a shelf in a supermarket.

The journey of a single food item from farm to fork can be rather treacherous, as it is picked, boxed, transported, sorted and reboxed on its way to our local grocery store and ultimately our kitchens.

The reality is that 40 percent of the food that’s produced globally never even reaches its final destination as it becomes waste somewhere along the way. In 2016, ReFED published "A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste By 20 Percent," highlighting 27 cost-effective and scalable solutions all along the supply chain. Based on this analysis, one of the most important factors in completing that journey from farm to fork has nothing to do with the food itself, but with its packaging. 

Up to 25 percent of residential food waste is due to packaging size or design, for example, food spoiling due to lack of packaging, condiments sticking to the sides and bottoms of containers or the inability to portion bulk fresh foods for timely consumption. Spoilage prevention packaging, or packaging that extends shelf-life, and packaging adjustments that enable complete consumption are capable of diverting 280,000 tons of food waste, with an economic value of $882 million.

With increased emphasis on ease and convenience, along with a drop in meals prepared and eaten at home, our food is almost exclusively coming packaged from our local grocery store or neighborhood restaurant.

In fact, Michael Pollan estimates that 19 percent of our meals are eaten in the car. With that change comes some very visible challenges — log on to social media and it takes only a matter of seconds to see photographs of the plastic contaminating our oceans or the materials piling up in our quickly-filling landfills. In response, food businesses and governments across the country and around the world are restricting or banning everything from plastic straws to grocery bags to plastic packaging in an attempt to mitigate these challenges. In fact, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation just announced a global commitment to tackle plastic waste and pollution signed by 290-plus organizations, representing 20 percent of all plastic packaging produced worldwide.

However, the fact that nearly half of our food is going to waste is staggering considering the 870 million people who are undernourished and the significant environmental impacts from the energy and resources used to grow, transport, store and package food that is never eaten.

A recent report published by Ameripen, an industry trade group, puts this environmental impact into perspective — data shows that the environmental footprint of food often exceeds that of its primary packaging; for example, beef emits 370 times more greenhouse gases (GHGs) than packaging and cucumbers emit 178 times more greenhouse gases than packaging. Another study attributes at least 50 percent of GHG emissions in a food packaging life-cycle analysis to food waste, and other studies both nationally and globally (by Oregon DEQ (PDF) and Williams & Wikstrom, to name two) confirm the important role of packaging in food-waste reduction and the associated GHG emission reduction. Of course, GHG emissions are just one component of the total environmental impact of packaging; nonetheless, it’s clear that a comprehensive evaluation must reflect the extent to which food packaging reduces food waste and the positive environmental impacts this yields. 

Do we then ignore the concerning amounts of material waste finding its way into our ecosystems and our oceans in an attempt to save our food? Of course not.

At a time of demonizing individual materials and packaging, when complete bans are being considered as a viable solution, this is a reminder to us all that we aren’t playing a game of absolutes, and we aren’t operating in isolation. An issue of packaging is an issue of food waste, and an issue of food waste is an issue of hunger and food availability — we need to find and focus on the balance. 

At ReFED, our mission is to reduce food waste in a way that creates economic opportunity, increases food access and promotes environmental sustainability. It is our challenge and purpose to find the sweet spot at the intersection of food waste reduction and material sustainability. We are actively engaging with industry experts, food businesses and innovators to promote and accelerate packaging solutions that increase the amount of food making it to our plates, while also improving our individual and collective stewardship over the environment. 

We are calling for the continued innovation and technological development of new, exciting packaging solutions, while also scaling the numerous solutions we already have right at our fingertips. We are calling for further research, commitments and policies on behalf of academics, food businesses and legislators to support the changes that need to be made. Finally, we are calling for the continued development of an inclusive dialogue that is taking into account the whole picture: the people, products, and planet we all share. 

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