The role of packaging in reducing avoidable food waste

Philip Simpson, commercial director at ReFood, discusses why packaging innovation is key to reducing household food waste volumes.

According to insight from WRAP, almost half of the UK’s food waste (some 4.5 million tonnes) originates in the home, costing the average family more than £700 every year. The vast majority of this ‘waste’ is considered perfectly edible, meaning the equivalent of ten billon meals are unnecessarily thrown away annually.

With nearly a billion people going hungry in the UK every day, these statistics are somewhat hard to swallow. What’s more, with landfill sites nationwide close to bursting, and the greenhouse gases released by rotting food considered 21 times more dangerous to the environment than carbon dioxide, needlessly throwing away food seems thoroughly unsustainable behaviour.

But while the picture may seem like bleak, recent statistics demonstrate an incremental decline in household food waste figures. Indeed, new data suggest that annual rates have dropped by almost 7% over the past three years, with homeowners beginning to appreciate – and challenge – the impact of their wasteful behaviour.

With landfill sites nationwide close to bursting, and the greenhouse gases released by rotting food considered 21 times more dangerous to the environment than carbon dioxide, needlessly throwing away food seems thoroughly unsustainable behaviour.

A key factor behind this decline is huge investment from government, trade bodies, celebrity chefs and thought leaders into behavioural change initiatives. In parallel, the wider supply chain continues to innovate, creating new and improved solutions to reduce waste wherever possible.

One primary area of focus is food product packaging. A combination of practical ‘design for zero waste’ approaches, combined with new and unique material choices, has proven hugely influential in further reducing household waste volumes. With packaging considered instrumental in extending product shelf life, innovation is changing the way in which we use and store food.

Packaging designed to boost shelf life

Innovative packaging is an area of continued progress, with new technologies and unique approaches helping consumers to directly reduce their food waste. Whether extending shelf life, preventing spoilage, or simply improving consumer confidence in using opened packages, progress aims to overcome barriers to achieving zero waste.

Here’s some of the most influential solutions:

  1. Intelligent packaging

Discarding perfectly edible food, due to misleading ‘best before’ dates, is surprisingly common. Intelligent packaging uses a small patch of smart plastic to show consumers how long packaging has been open. This encourages the consumer to only discard food that is unsafe to eat.

  1. Snap-packs

With more single-person households than ever before, ‘family size’ perishable items are often unsuitable and form a key part of unnecessary waste. Snap-packs consist of single person portions, individually split and packaged into larger quantities. Consumers can open the desired volume of product, leaving the remainder enclosed in sealed packaging. A simple idea, but one that has already proven instrumental in reducing waste.

  1. Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP)

MAP seals food together with specific concentrations of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. This unique blend of gases – which is altered depending on the exact type of fresh food enclosed – preserves colour and taste, as well as increasing product shelf life.

  1. Active packaging

Active packaging preserves food by adding certain chemicals to the packaging itself, which makes the environment less attractive for bacteria to grow. The addition of iron oxide, for example, reduces oxygen levels inside the packaging to increase shelf life.

  1. Resealable packaging

Practical rather than scientific, using resealable packaging helps to further increase product shelf life once a product is opened. An air-tight seal helps to maintain freshness, prevent products from going stale and gives consumers the confidence to use food for longer.

The above examples, alongside countless more, are helping to support behavioural change programmes by providing practical solutions to reduce household waste. Thinking about consumer habits, as well as identifying key areas of waste, has helped packaging companies to directly impact household food waste figures.

The role of recycling

While impressive steps have already been made in reducing household food waste, it is still the single greatest contributor to the UK’s mountainous food waste problem. Finding new and improved ways to reduce the volume is essential, but recognising unavoidable waste is also an important consideration.

Take egg shells, gristle and bones, for example. Completely eliminating household food waste simply isn’t possible. However, with landfill often considered the only other option, finding an alternative is essential.

While not the silver bullet solution, food waste recycling provides a sustainable substitute. A simple process that harnesses anaerobic digestion to extract methane from natural degredation, recycling prevents food from being landfilled.

The extracted methane can either be combusted and used to power the National Grid, or upgraded and injected directly into the gas grid. Meanwhile, the resulting digestate (leftover food) can be pasteurised and used as a natural biofertiliser to help aid crop growth – effectively closing the food supply chain.

At ReFood, we believe that homeowners nationwide should have access to separate kerbside food waste recycling services and that the landfilling of food should be banned – a legislative change that we’ve been lobbying for since launching our Vision 2020 roadmap in 2013.

If we were to achieve this, it would be possible to recycle all of the UK’s unavoidable food waste – a significant volume. When combined with education programmes, innovative packaging solutions and the positive behavioural change being demonstrated by homeowners nationwide, this could collectively cut food waste volumes immediately.

For the homeowner, the cost savings are obvious. For the local authorities, this would prevent landfill sites from overflowing. For the planet, the environmental benefits would be monumental. This is a solution we mustn’t ‘waste’.

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