Food wastage is resource-intensive, costing large amounts of water, energy, and fuel for transport. In a cost-benefit analysis, producing more food packaging to reduce the amount of food wastage may be better, from a sustainability perspective, opine Tanweer Alam, Priti Khemariya and Rahul Anurag
The urgency of food wastage as a global issue is becoming acute as the population continues to soar. In a study of last year, the Natural Resources Defense Fund estimated that 40% of edible food goes uneaten in the US, alone. That equates to about $165 billion in wasted food, which occurs throughout the supply chain from inefficient agricultural practices and damage in transit and storage to sale by date labeling that causes consumers to throw out perfectly edible food too frequently.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted globally each year, with consumers in Europe and North America throwing away between 95-115 kg of food per person. A lack of understanding around sell-by, best before, and use-by dates can result in good food being thrown out. There has certainly been a global interest in food loss and waste. There are many initiatives around the world to address this issue. In 2015, the USDA and EPA announced a national food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50% reduction by 2030. Producing beef, for example, emits 370 more times greenhouse gas than producing packaging does, according to the American report.
France banned food wastage, forcing supermarkets to sign agreements with charities so no edible food ends up in the trash. Italy’s Senate has passed a law that makes donating food easier for businesses and offers tax credits to supermarkets and farmers who donate. There is a proposal for a National Food Waste Reduction Strategy in Canada.
Food Wastage – The Indian Scenario
India is the second-largest producer of food in the world and one of the major consumers of packaged food and beverage. Increased consumer awareness and growth of the processed food and beverage industry are the major factors for a major shift from unpackaged vending to packaged forms of sale. Some other factors like exposure to new and improved packaging methods, relaxation in food and beverage import norms, increasing modern retail outlets and changing consumer preferences have all resulted in brand owners recognizing the need for advanced packaging solutions at economical costs.
Packaging has served the Indian economy by lengthening and also preserving the shelf-life of products ranging from milk and biscuits, processes and semi-processed food, edible oil etc. According to a report by MCG, the Indian consumer packaging market is estimated at around Rs. 685 billion in 2015-16 and is forecast to reach Rs. 1,170 billion by 2020-21, at an annual growth rate of 11.3%. The packaging industry in India is valued at Rs. 1,270 billion (2015-16). Within the industry, with a 54 percent market share, consumer packaging is ahead of its bulk packaging counterpart.
The food packaging industry has exhibited muted growth over the last few years, with a slowdown in industrial growth and drop in consumer demand and India’s low per capita packaging consumption vis-à-vis that of developed economies, increasing disposable incomes, growth in end-use industries, especially packaged food, and a shift towards organized markets as the key growth factors. The new capital investment is also positive as most companies plan to invest in new manufacturing facilities to cater to increased demand. Going forward, packaging companies plan to focus on driving revenue and profitability through an emphasis on exports, improved customer service and increased production efficiencies.
Further, with the implementation of GST the packaging industry will witness higher growth, as demand across key end-user industries is likely to increase. Research and Market report say, ‘During the period 2016-2021, the soft drinks and food industries will be the highest packaging market share gainers(by units) with share growth of 3.4% and 1.3%, respectively. The growing organized retail sector has been a significant driver of the growth of the food and beverage industries, which in turn drives the growth of the Indian packaging industry. In addition, innovations in the packaging industry, such as the development of lighter packaging with better barrier properties, add to the growth of the packaging industry. In terms of packaging material, glass and rigid plastics will be among the major share gainers, with share growth of 0.7% and 0.6%, respectively during 2016-2021. ’
Role of Packaging to Minimize the Food Waste/Spoilage
From a sustainable materials management perspective, packaging can play a key role in food waste avoidance. It is omnipresent in the food supply chain, carrying crop seeds to farmers, transporting freshly harvested produce to market, keeping perishables fresh, and helping consumers carry groceries home and store them in their kitchens. Therefore, its primary function to prevent the loss of considerable resources (material and energy) embedded in our food products must be optimized. In other words, the packaging is on the front-line of the food waste crisis, whether it is packaging bulk goods or individual products, and it can it be leveraged to alleviate waste at each phase of food production through consumption.
The role of packaging as a primary means is to reduce global food and product wastes. Consumers have considered packaging is often unnecessary and ultimately as just waste to be disposed of. But that misconception is now changing. A focus on package innovations that extend food freshness, preserve ingredient fortification and ensure safe delivery is increasingly benefiting consumers on a global scale. 50% of US grocery shoppers agree that the right packaging can help reduce food waste. In an environment where 56% of Brazilians are actively trying to reduce food waste at home, rather than simply highlighting packaging materials and technology, converters must promote package benefits and brands need to spotlight those attributes on-pack to become catalysts for changing consumers’ perceptions of packaging for the better.
61% of Canadian fruit and vegetable buyers say they would be interested in packaging that keeps food fresh longer, indicating the importance of this issue across the globe. Brands need to act now, exploiting on-pack communication tools to educate consumers to the benefits packaging can bring, from extending the shelf life of food to providing efficient and safe access to essential products in developed and underserved regions of the world. Packaging techniques such as modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) and packaging innovations such as active and intelligent packaging are being used to combat food waste.
Some best practices of packaging that can contribute to the reduction of food waste. Develop tailored solutions and the design of secondary and tertiary packaging that provide better protection and shelf life for fresh produce and other agricultural products as they move from farm to processor, to wholesaler, to the retailer.
- Increase the use of transport packaging that supports recovery of surplus and “unsalable” fresh produce so that it can be diverted to food kitchens or utilized as livestock feed, as appropriate.
- Accelerate the development and adoption of new packaging materials and technologies such as modified atmosphere packaging and oxygen scavengers, to extend the shelf life of foods.
- Develop a science-based and standardized process for the assignation of “use-by” and “best-before” date marks on primary packaging and educate manufacturers, retailers and consumers about the meaning of these marks to ensure they are understood and followed appropriately.
- Move to product/packaging portioning that caters to changing consumption patterns and smaller households.
- Synchronize supply chains that use intelligent packaging and data to reduce excess or out-of-date stock.
- Increase use of retail ready packaging to reduce double handling to minimize damage and improve stock turnover.
- Print tips for reducing food waste, e.g. using stale food to left-overs on the packaging.
The number of methodologies of packaging technology for food has developed over the years. Active packaging, intelligent packaging and nanotechnology are some of the newly introduced concepts in the market. The packaging is the most important aspect of product design. There have been a lot of technological advancements in the industry, but still innovation is the need-of-the-hour.
Shelf-life enhancement through the use of barrier packaging
Packaging extends the product’s shelf life thus preventing food wastages. Consumer and industry education and awareness of the issue and practical solutions will go a long way to address the food waste problem. The industry must balance consumer demands for sustainable packaging with demands for convenience, performance, appearance and cost. A quality package should protect and preserve the product and deliver it safely to the consumer. Shortened shelf life, weigh the risk of dissatisfied consumers and lost revenue due to unsold products.
The requirement for barrier packaging to extend shelf life depends on the product’s sensitivity. Barrier packaging provides protection from external factors such as oxygen, moisture and light. Without barrier packaging, the quality of the product may be compromised and the shelf life shortened. This often leads to more waste than smaller portion packages that can be used up before food spoilage occurs. Retail packages are usually portioned for use within a reasonable period of time. The barrier properties of packaging (Oxygen Transmission Rate and Water Vapor Transmission Rate), perform MAP studies and evaluate active and intelligent packaging to extend product shelf life.
Shelf-life enhancement through the use of Modified Atmosphere Packaging
Modified Atmosphere Packaging is also known as gas flushing, protective atmosphere packaging or reduced oxygen packaging. Modified Atmosphere enables fresh and minimally processed packaged food products to maintain visual, textural and nutritional appeal. The controlled MAP environment enables food packaging to provide an extended shelf life without requiring the addition of chemical preservatives or stabilizers. Processors and marketers of food products rely on Modified Atmosphere Packaging to assure fresh and flavorful products that continually meet the consumer’s expectation for brand quality, consistency, freshness and in-stock availability. The Modified Atmosphere Package environment is formed from a finely balanced mix of normal atmospheric gases. The finely balanced MAP gas mix slows down the product ageing process to reduce colour loss, odor and off-taste resulting from product deterioration, spoilage and rancidity caused by mold and other anaerobic organisms.
A carefully controlled Modified Atmosphere Package achieves and maintains an optimal respiration rate to preserve the fresh colour, taste and nutrient content of red meat, seafood, minimally processed fruits and vegetables, pasta, prepared foods, cheese, baked goods, cured meats and dried foods throughout the extended shelf life.
Smart and Intelligent Food Packaging
Smart packaging took a step forward recently with the availability of a software tool that enables brand owners to create digital identities for their products using the existing GS1 identifiers in universal product codes (UPC). Smart packaging provides enhanced functionality that can be divided into two submarkets: Active packaging, which provides functionality such as moisture control, and intelligent packaging, which incorporates features that indicate the status or communicate product changes and other information.
It’s a growing segment and demand for active and intelligent packaging in the U.S. is forecast to expand 8.0 percent annually to $3.5 billion in 2017, well above total packaging demand growth. The report identifies food and beverages as the two largest markets for smart Packaging. Advances in printed electronics are boosting potential opportunities for smart packaging by lowering costs. This technology will certainly help in tracking and tracing the commodity and also assist in controlling the theft and spillage. This packaging system will also help to transmit the information of spoilage status and temperature abuse of food products during storage and transportation through intelligent tagging and smart labeling (RFID Tag, Smart inking and Biosensor).
Shelf-life enhancement through the use of Active Packaging
The terms active packaging, intelligent packaging, and smart packaging refer to packaging systems used to help extend shelf life, monitor freshness, display information on quality, improve safety, and improve convenience. Active packaging usually means having active functions beyond the inert passive containment and protection of the product. Intelligent and smart packaging usually involves the ability to sense or measure an attribute of the product, the inner atmosphere of the package, or the shipping environment. This information can be communicated to users or can trigger active packaging functions. Programmable matter, smart materials, etc can be employed in packages. Desiccants have been used to control the water vapor in a closed package.
A desiccant is a hygroscopic substance usually in a porous pouch or sachet which is placed inside a sealed package. They have been used to reduce corrosion of machinery and electronics and to extend the shelf life of moisture sensitive foods and drugs. Corrosion inhibitors can be applied to items to help prevent rust and corrosion. Volatile corrosion inhibitors (VCI) or vapor phase corrosion inhibitors can be provided inside a package in a pouch or can be incorporated in a saturated overwrap of special paper. Many of these are organic salts that condense on the metal to resist corrosion. Metal-chelating active packaging materials are made by immobilizing metal-chelating active compounds onto traditional active packaging material. The surface-immobilized metal-chelating compounds can scavenge the transition metals from the product and enhance the oxidative stability of the product.
The metal-chelating active packaging technology is also antioxidant active packaging that will extend the shelf-life of consumer products by controlling the oxidation. Oxygen absorbers help remove oxygen from a closed package. Some are small packets or sachets containing powdered iron: as the iron rusts, oxygen is removed from the surrounding atmosphere. Newer systems are on cards or can be built into package films or molded structures. In addition, the physical characteristics of the packaging itself (oxygen transmission rate – OTR) can dictate how effective an oxygen absorber can be, and how long it will stay effective. Packaging with a low OTR will let less oxygen in the closed package through the polymer barrier itself.
Sustainable Packaging Solution to Reduce Food Wastage
The best way to decide is to perform a Life Cycle Assessment, which measures the environmental impacts of the package through the entire life cycle from production, usage to disposal. This can be a long and expensive endeavour. Deciding which package system has lower environmental impacts, or is more sustainable, is not always straight forward. Some practical approaches to sustainable packaging are to apply the 3R’s (reuse, reduce, recycle), use renewable and responsibly sourced materials and improve the efficiency of the manufacturing process and distribution system. The package design should be optimized to protect and preserve the product in order to minimize food waste.
Most compostable (biodegradable) packaging are not collected and composted, but end up in landfills where anaerobic degradation occurs. This forms methane, which has than 25 times the strength as a Green House Gas compared to carbon dioxide, according to the EPA.
The better approach to sustainable packaging is to use bio-based materials that use renewable resources, reduce the carbon footprint and can provide an alternate end-of-life scenario through composting or recycling. An example of using a bio-based material is Coca-Cola’s Plant Bottle. This bottle is made of a material that performs and recycles like conventional petroleum-based plastic but is partially made from plants (a renewable resource). The anaerobic digesters (landfills) are managing and converting that methane into clean renewable energy all over the world.
Landfills are the third option for plastics, but a terrible one. Using landfill gas as an energy source may be one method to deal with the GHG that are currently emitted from landfills, but it is by no means “clean” or “renewable energy” in the intended sense of the term.
The sustainable Package Design solution
The packing conditions, package format, and materials can then be optimized to maximize shelf life and minimize food waste. The shipping container and pallet configuration should also be reviewed and optimized to minimize product damage.
Recycling of packaging multilayer films: New materials for technical products
Multilayer foils are approximately 17% of all produced packaging films. Most produced multilayer film is based on the composition of polyethylene–polyamide (type PAPE). Previous experiences in the recycling of these materials showed that recyclates of these films is heterogeneous materials, making them more difficult to use for the manufacturing of new products. Modifications of recycled PAPE were carried out using recycled polyethylene (from 25 to 75 wt.% PE) and inorganic fillers in the form of ash (up to 30 wt.%). New materials need be characterized, their properties for their usability in the direction of technical products. New plastic composites based on recycled materials after modifying them with special fillers can be used instead of the original plastic material.
Conclusion: Overall Sustainable Salvation of Food Wastage
The idea of packaging more food to reduce the food that spoils or otherwise goes to waste makes practical sense, as food that is packaged can also be better preserved. Optimizing, and possibly increasing, the amount of packaging used for food products may be a way to reduce food waste summarized as follows:
There are a number of fresh food categories that are under packaged and, if packaging solutions are deployed with a goal to prevent food waste, significant food waste reductions could be achieved. Consumers tend to view recyclable packaging or no packaging at all as the most sustainable option for food. However, food that is packaged to last longer can be stored longer, thus leading to less wasted food and food going to waste is typically more resource-intensive than disposed or recycled packaging.
On the other hand, increasing the amount of packaging can seem counterintuitive to those seeking to reduce their own personal footprint and those looking to reduce the amount of total waste that is generated. However, wasted food is resource-intensive, costing large amounts of water, energy and fuel for transport. In a cost-benefit analysis, producing more packaging to reduce the amount of food may be better, from a sustainability perspective, than continuing to let so much food to go waste at the consumer level.
The material used for package matters, of course. Certain materials, such as cardboard, some plastics and cartons, are easier to recycle than polystyrene foam or plastic film. Other materials, like glass or sturdy plastics, could even be reused by consumers. Solutions for improving packaging (other than changing materials) range from clarifying or standardizing date labels to including more detailed information on the packaging about how the containers help prevent food waste. Another route to reducing packaging waste would be to invest in technology that makes more types of containers recyclable. An even closer relationship between the waste sector and packaging producers may be key to further reducing food waste.
Getting to a truly optimum, holistic solution requires shelf life, distribution, damage, and cost effective packages. That solution might include spending more on sustainable film, MAP, secondary packaging, or improved shelf life but reducing food wastes/spoilage.