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Tackling food waste should be a food packaging priority.

Food waste has a significant economic, environmental and social cost. A recent report by the House of Lords estimated 89 million tonnes of food is wasted annually across the EU. Of this, the UK wastes approximately 15 million tonnes of food each year and each tonne of waste has a market value of around £950.

This means a loss to British businesses of at least £5 billion every year just from food waste. From an environmental perspective. the global carbon footprint of food waste is estimated at more than double all greenhouse gas emissions produced from all the road transportation in the USA. Furthermore, with a growing population, forecast to reach more than 70 million by 2028 in the UK alone, cutting out food waste is essential to cater for demand for food in the future. The packaging industry has a crucial role in helping to cut food waste and reducing its economic, environmental and social impact on the wider economy.

Food waste occurs at all levels of the supply chain, from the point of harvesting food all the way to the food we have in our fridges. However, the vast majority of food waste (42%) is household waste. A 2012 report by the UK’s Waste and Resources Action Plan (WRAP) showed that approximately 80% of food that is wasted in the household is accountable to three factors – consumers over-purchasing food and not consuming it before it goes off, food passing its best before date and being discarded before consumption, or simply when too much food is prepared at meal times. These are all preventable cases of food that can be reduced through more effective food packaging.

Food packaging is a simple yet effective solution to reduce the amount of food waste that occurs in the household. It has the potential to greatly improve consumers’ knowledge and understanding of when food needs to be consumed by. Packaging can also be used to extend the shelf life of food so that it is available for consumption for much longer thus reducing waste. The most significant initiatives underway within the packaging industry to cut down on food waste include:

Studies have found that only 37% of consumers know the difference between "use by" and "best before" dates on food packaging with a resulting impact on food being needlessly thrown away. The main issue in this is that consumers often consider the two terms to mean the same thing; if the "use by" date was made clearer and an explanation of the "best before" date was clearly included in the pack design this could lead to less confusion. The House of Lords report also recommends that better clarity is necessary to reduce the amount of food wasted in the home and that this is a change that the House of Lords recommends should be implemented in regulations to be set up by the European Commission and supported by the UK Government.

Smart packaging businesses can act now to ensure they are ahead of the game by adopting better labelling.

A complimentary initiative from Scottish firm Insignia Technologies is an innovative new way of labelling food packaging in a bid to better inform consumers about the shelf life of the food they have purchased and opened. By including an indicator front of pack that says how long the food has left until it is unsafe to eat the design hopes to reduce food waste through uncertainty. This "count down" approach is hoped to be less vulnerable to misinterpretation than the traditional date-based approach.

Finally and moving into the bigger picture of information through labelling, the UK consumer facing campaign "Love Food Hate Waste", run by WRAP has another labelling solution for food waste. The campaign recommends that packagers experiment with printing different recipes, suitable for left-overs directly onto the packaging that can encourage consumers to try new dishes thus using up food that may have gone to waste otherwise.

Intelligent packaging
Creating more intelligent packaging is a key solution to the issue of food waste. This includes two main points: new technology and innovation that will lead to food having a longer shelf life and the need to adapt food packaging to evolving single household and on-the-go lifestyles.

As an example of the first point, retailers have already invested in new technology to prolong the life of fresh produce to minimise waste. Marks and Spencer now uses a patented strip of clay and other minerals at the bottom of its punnets of strawberries to absorb ethylene, the chemical that causes fruit to ripen. This technology does not affect the recyclability of the packaging and lengthens the life of the strawberries by up to two days in the fridge. The Co-op has developed new packaging for its tomatoes to reduce the amount of moisture that builds up. By using smaller perforated holes and increasing the number of them, the retailer claims that the shelf life of the tomatoes has been extended by up to two days. More recently, Tesco has made the simple decision to replace its cartonboard egg boxes for plastics ones to reduce the impact of one broken egg on the whole batch during shipping or in-store.

Malnove Packaging Solutions have developed a resealable carton that will cut down on waste and provide enhanced environmental benefits due to the elimination of secondary packaging materials required when shipping. The carton can be used for singular or multiple products and because of its resealable nature it will help keep food products fresher for longer.

Similarly, there’s also a need to educate consumers as to how exactly some packaging and processing technologies work. A study last year for example found that 37% of UK consumers believed that long-life milk in aseptic cartons contained preservatives.

Perhaps by investing in educating consumers in how core technology such as aseptic packaging works, the industry can guide consumers towards product choices – such as aseptic products, which tend to last longer and negate the need for refrigeration – thereby lowering food waste and costs throughout the supply chain. Aseptic technology can play a huge role as an existing technology in reducing food waste, but it’s clear that consumers need to understand it if the industry wants them to consider aseptic products as equal to fresh products.

The use of single serve portions can also play a big part in reducing food waste. The number of people living alone has risen steadily since 2003 with 29% of all households in the UK having a single occupant in 2013. Offering smaller sizes caters for the growing market in individual meals as well as reducing the amount of food wasted from over-buying. An added benefit is that smaller sizes when combined with innovative packs can also help to facilitate the separate trend of increasingly on-the-go lifestyles, helping to open new markets for existing products. One other major trend to be aware of is the impact of aging populations. The number of over 60 consumers is projected to increase by 2% from 2012 to 2022 taking the average national age from 39.7 years to 40.2 years old.

Easy to use packaging can help to reduce elderly malnutrition and tackle food exclusion. At the same time, by increasing the choices available to older consumers, packaging can help to reduce food waste by enabling older consumers to choose the food that they’d actually like to eat – rather than simply what’s accessible.

One of the biggest issues facing the packaging industry is that of perception, packaging still has a major image problem. Consumers see packaging as part of the issue of food waste, rather than part of the solution, and this ends up having a knock-on impact on the amount of food that goes to waste.

For example, a study by the Love Food Hate Waste campaign demonstrated that consumers are often unaware that food can generally be kept fresher for longer by retaining the original packaging. For example, the air inside plastic bags containing salad has been treated to slow down decomposition so that the salad stays fresher for longer, but consumers are often unaware of this benefit – leading them to discard the packaging.

A key focus for the packaging industry should be to continue to reassure and educate consumers of the role packaging plays in keeping food fresher for longer. This will involve better on-pack design and ultimately better package designs. As an industry we need to renew our focus on designing the packs that simultaneously reduce food waste and suit current consumer trends.

Tackling food waste offers a social, environmental and economic return. This in my view makes it the perfect issue for the packaging industry to play a key role in tackling in 2014 and beyond and demonstrate once and for all the added value to customers and consumers alike of good packaging design and materials.

Dr Liz Wilks, Director, Asia Pulp & Paper, is an active member of the British Retail Consortium Technical Advisory Committee for the Global Standard for Packaging and Packaging Materials, holds a PhD in International Packaging Standards and is currently working with the University of Cardiff (UWIC) to develop the first Msc in International Packaging.