Packaging unwrapped

Materials World magazine
1 Nov 2017

Packaging could reduce food waste, and even add nutrients to the soil, if it doesn’t consist of harmful plastic waste. Ines Nastali reports.

‘It depresses me that there is far less attention from politicians and the media to food waste than to packaging,’ said Dick Searle, Chief Executive of The Packaging Federation when speaking at the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum in October. ‘It has such a bad reputation, but it is not the sin that dare not speak its name. You need to remember that if food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of carbon dioxide globally, according to Yale University, USA, research, but nobody talks about that or how packaging plays a big role in reducing food waste,’ His stance might be understandable given his role, but real life experience supports his argument. 

For example, in recent years, supermarkets justified the use of shrink plastic wrappers to cover cucumbers, saying it enables them to sell produce for longer as cucumbers don’t get damaged, which is something that makes them look unattractive and reduces the chance that consumers want to buy it. 

More packaging, smaller sizes

The problem with this is that packaged food often comes in bigger sizes and doesn’t allow the customer to just buy one tomato, four potatoes and two carrots should they choose to do so. They are often forced to buy bigger packs than necessary, which results in creating more food waste. 

Decreasing package sizes could therefore reduce food waste, although this might mean that more packaging waste is created, something Searle confirmed when he talked to Materials World. ‘Absolutely, food waste is many times higher because of this problem, so decreasing portion sizes can help tackle it. This is something that producers know and already work on,’ he said.

With the packaging comes information on storage and use by dates, which the panel at the Westminster Forum argued is something the consumers don’t act upon. ‘Around 6 million tonnes of edible food is thrown away in UK houses annually,’ Searle stated, adding that research undertaken by the federation has shown that consumers fail to properly use the instructions for storage given on the packaging. 

Nevertheless, he added, it doesn’t help to put food into fancy packages if consumers and producers don’t value what’s in the package in the first place.

End of life 

A different view on this argument, as well as on packaging and waste, comes from Elizabeth Graham, professor at University College London. The archaeologist argued in favour of looking at the material used for packaging. Graham, who also attended the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum, said ‘We need to look at landfills differently, as a resource.’ She added to Materials World, ‘A lot of the materials that end up in a landfill add to the nutrients of the soil, except for plastic waste.’ 

It therefore makes sense to look at not only what goes into a landfill, but what it is made of. ‘So when designing a product, it is important to look at which material we use for the packaging, because the soil will be full of products that degrade,’ she added. If packaging manufacturers ensure that no harmful leakage happens in the landfill, material can add to the soil’s chemical structure.

Recycle more

A lot of material shouldn’t find its way to a landfill, because it gets recycled. Nick Brown, Head of Sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners, wants more to be done on this. Also speaking at the forum, he said, ‘63% of UK local authorities don’t have on the go recycling facilities, but more packaging gets used today when people are out and about.’ He proposed a UK-wide deposit system for plastic bottles to be recycled and reused as potential aid to up the recycling rate from currently 30% to the government’s target of 57% by 2020. This idea was welcomed by the delegates and it might also help get young people to recycle, as Brown said Coca-Cola’s in-house research has revealed that 68% of 18 to 35 year-olds are not aware that plastic bottles are recyclable. 

When it comes to food waste reduction, both consumers and producers play a role and share the responsibility to use produce as efficiently as possible and take a step towards the circular economy.