Food production often has the heaviest environmental impact on the life cycle of food; measures that can be taken to reduce food losses are therefore important. In the retail and consumer sections of the life cycle, packaging plays a key role in reducing food spoilage and loss. Packaging can take a number of forms—from the cartons and bottles food is delivered in, to the packaging used to transport food to stores, to the bags we use to bring food products home. Appropriate and sustainable packaging options are needed to keep food fresh and reduce waste from the point of manufacture to the customer’s home.
Sweden is one country that has a long history of innovation in packaging technology. In recent years, the country’s focus has been on innovative packaging solutions that are sustainable, a combination that helps to reduce food and packaging waste. Food waste is a real issue in the food industry and in our everyday lives, says Ann Lorentzon of the Miljöpack secretariat at STFI-Packforsk, a packaging research institute in Stockholm. “Reports have shown that up to a third of the food we buy is thrown out due to incorrect storage or oversized packaging,” she says.
More Flexible Packaging
Food waste is actually a much bigger environmental problem than the packaging material, according to Lorentzon. Discarded food products have a larger environmental impact than their associated packaging.1 Thus, she says, packaging products need to offer not only sufficient protection for food products but also flexibility and ease of handling in order to reduce unnecessary waste.
In fact, a recent STFI-Packforsk study showed that 74 tons of yogurt—up to 10% of the food content in yogurt cartons—is wasted every year in Sweden because consumers find it difficult to use all the yogurt contained in traditional packaging cartons. Other surveys have shown that consumers in the United States discard up to 50% of their food at a cost of $43 billion a year.2 This figure represents 10% of Sweden’s gross domestic product.
Making it possible for consumers to purchase appropriately sized packaging for their needs—whether they are shopping for a large family or a one-person household—is an important factor for reducing food losses at the consumer level, as is having a package that can be completely emptied of its contents.3
Helén Williams, a researcher at Karlstad University (Karlstad, Sweden), says that there are real environmental gains to be had from offering smaller packages to reduce household waste. Previously, the thinking has been the opposite—that larger packaging is better because it means less packaging material per food unit.
“Our choices of food packaging can help improve the environment,” Williams says. “A one-liter carton of milk, for example, can be more environmentally friendly than a 1.5-liter carton, which may not be finished before its contents go off.”
In fact, a recent study by Williams and colleagues found that the easier it is to completely empty a package, the less of the packed product will be lost. In turn, cleaner packaging is easier to handle in the recycling system and could yield positive environmental effects; additives in the packaging could make recycling more difficult, resulting in negative environmental effects.
More Packaging Options
Williams adds that the onus to reduce food waste is on both consumers and manufacturers. “As consumers, we have to be more responsible about the food we buy. Only buy what you really need, and then use every bit of that food—don’t waste anything. When you’re finished with the produce, recycle the packaging—but reducing food waste is key. Manufacturers, on the other hand, need to start looking at how they market their products and offer different packaging sizes due to different consumer needs.”