Packaging Innovations, more packaging means less waste

Materials World magazine
1 Apr 2016

Speakers at Packaging Innovations discussed how a combination of materials, design and consumer awareness could improve the world’s food waste problem. Simon Frost reports.

More packaging results in less waste, but most consumers think it’s the other way round – so claimed Barry Turner, Director of the BPF’s new Plastic and Flexible Packaging Group, at the Packaging Innovations exhibition in February. He cited a 2014 study by Sealed Air, USA, where 89% of surveyed consumers believed that packaging waste was more harmful than food waste.

The relationship between packaging and food waste was a key topic of discussion, and the significance of food waste was made plain by Marcel Keuenhof, European Packaging Manager for Netherlands-based food production company Wessanen, speaking independently of this affiliation. ‘Roughly one third of all edible food is wasted worldwide [...] and if you saved just a quarter of all the food we throw away, there could be no more hunger,’ he said. 

But what is the role of packaging technology in stemming this global problem? In his talk, Keuenhof presented examples of recent innovative solutions, such as milk bottles lined with antimicrobial silver nanoparticles to extend the milk’s life, by Brazillian company Agrindus, and Netherlands-based Dampack International’s BeeMagicTray – a fresh meat package that combines a honeycomb structured base with a perforated polymer film to improve gas distribution and reduce moisture loss, increasing the meat’s shelf life.

Keuenhof brought with him an example of the ‘more packaging, less waste’ argument, a fresh meat tray he had found in a Dutch supermarket. The meat sits upon two simple protrusions and the surrounding area is vacuum packed, keeping the meat fresh, he claimed, for weeks rather than days. 

He retold meeting with the shop’s marketing manager, who had introduced the new packaging. ‘He said that before they used to throw away between 5–10% of all meat because it had reached its shelf life, but now they don’t throw any away. For me, this is a very good example where, by adding a bit more packaging – yes, there may be more packaging going to waste – but you reduce so much more food waste, and CO2, along the way.’ 

The case of the cucumber

Both Keuenhof and Turner used the example of the cucumber as a successful packaging solution that was often wrongly criticised by a well-intentioned, but misinformed public. ‘Yes, OK, it already has a natural skin’, Keuenhof began, ‘but think about it – after two days in the supermarket, they throw out that cucumber because the skin starts to go wrinkly, so people don’t buy it. So, supermarkets started putting this [polyethylene] film on them and now far fewer are thrown away.’ 

Citing a 2015 study by Denkstatt, Austria, Turner quantified that the introduction of a cucumber film had reduced the rate of waste from 9.4% to 4.6% of the total stock. By the same measure, PS/EVA/PE-based skin packaging for meats had reduced waste to 18%, compared with 34% for EPS top-seal trays in modified atmosphere, while the benefit of adding an additional polypropylene film to garden cress growing on a substrate in a PS tray was staggering – 3.4% waste with the added film, 42% without.

‘I’m not saying that we should have plastic everywhere and it should end up in the landfills and the oceans – obviously not – but we should raise more awareness of what packaging does,’ Keuenhof advised. ‘If you realise the amount of energy that goes into growing food – the pesticides, the fertilisers, the transport from whatever country it comes from – it requires so much more energy to actually grow and transport the food than the packaging does.’ Turner ranked packaging at less than 5% of a supermarket’s and less than 1% of a consumer’s carbon footprint.  

A matter of education

Both presenters independently concluded that packaging must be designed more smartly with food waste in mind, but the public also needs to be better informed of the role that packaging plays. 

‘Some consumers think that the best thing they can do is remove the product from the packaging as soon as it comes into the household, failing to understand that the packaging is there to do a job in the home as well as getting the product to the consumer in the first place,’ Turner said. ‘I believe that packaging can and has to play a vital role in tackling this issue – there has to be far more design focus in terms of portion control and reclosable packs – but we have to educate the consumer together.’ 

To read our follow-up interview with Barry Turner, download this month’s app issue of Materials World