May 24, 2022
SPC and ReFED Publish Guidance to Help Companies Prevent Food Waste with Packaging Design
The food wasted by humans is responsible for roughly 8 percent of global emissions. While this may seem like a drop in the bucket, addressing the food waste problem can be a powerful lever in reducing emissions. Food waste reduction is a confirmed top solution to climate change, according to Project Drawdown.
Packaging can be a key enabler of food waste reduction. ReFED estimates that changes to packaging design can help divert 1.1 million tons of food waste annually while reducing emissions by 6 million metric tons of CO2e. This represents a remarkable opportunity for the packaging industry to address climate change downstream in their supply chain.
To help companies harness this opportunity, the SPC and ReFED have published “Best Practices for Designing Packaging to Prevent Food Waste”, a guide that explores the role that better packaging design can play in reducing and preventing downstream food waste.
The following packaging design strategies were identified as themes in the research of leading food waste nonprofits (ReFED, WRAP), experts in academia (Karlstad University, Michigan State University, Johns Hopkins University), and industry (Fight Food Waste CRC, Denkstatt) as key to reducing household and retail-level food waste. They are not a comprehensive list of all strategies, but represent a selection of design choices that may be applied to a wide variety of product categories.
1. Resealable packaging
Several studies have shown that consumers report problems with packaging that is not adequate to keep food fresh and edible, such as packaging that is not resealable or is difficult to empty. Surveys show that consumers want more resealable and reclosable packages, particularly for certain product categories like meat, snack, and bakery. These and other categories may benefit from resealable zippers, lids, or other closures to help maintain product freshness.
2. Variety in portion sizes and pack sizes
A wider variety of pack sizes for all kinds of foods helps to address new trends in household size, purchasing habits, and awareness of appropriate portions. Smaller portions and pack sizes can help reduce food waste from:
- Opened food that spoils because only some of the contents are eaten or cooked at once
- Consumers cooking too much food due to the default quantity in the package
- Consumers having no other option except to buy larger portions than they need because smaller portions aren’t available
3. Active & intelligent packaging
“Active” packaging works to further extend shelf life of a product, while “intelligent” packaging works to communicate product quality. As a category, this packaging slows spoilage through technologies such as ethylene absorption, modified atmospheres, moisture absorption, etc., or adaptive materials that inform as to the quality/safety of the contents. These are often used to reduce the perishability of meat and produce. Some of these technologies have been around for a number of years, while others are newer or have not been applied to a wider range of products, such as dairy or salad greens. They are an opportunity to address food waste issues without genetic modification of food, increased packaging materials, or significant changes to the supply chain.
4. Access to contents (product evacuation)
Being able to easily access contents, also known as product evacuation, is one of the most important features of packaging. After all, if a product is difficult to access, the packaging has not done its job of delivering the contents. Although the data on this problem is still limited, anecdotally, it’s clear that the inability to get all the product out of a packaging is a real problem for consumers, such as for ketchup, honey, peanut butter, yogurt, and beauty products.
The increased visibility afforded by transparent packaging can have important implications for how the package prevents food waste. When consumers can see into a package, they may be more likely to purchase the item that best meets their needs, be reminded to use up all the contents, and notice when food has started to lose its freshness, such as salad greens that are beginning to have too much moisture or wilt. Visibility can help combat the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon that can lead to food being forgotten and wasted.
6. Compostable packaging
One goal of packaging should be to reduce the known causes of food waste in retail and homes whenever possible. Food waste is not inevitable or unavoidable, but as companies and consumers take time to get better at preventing waste, some amount of food waste will continue to occur fairly consistently. If food has already spoiled or cannot be donated, it needs to be managed in the best way possible to reduce further emissions.
Composting and anaerobic digestion are much better than sending food waste to landfills, and compostable packaging can help ensure that packaging is not a barrier to composting food waste. Brands and retailers can consider how easily a package’s contents spoil, and how the packaging currently used may be inhibiting the successful composting or anaerobic digestion of food waste.
The climate emergency and the staggering amount of food sent to landfills are two sides of the same coin. Now, it is time for companies to reduce their carbon footprint by tackling the emissions from food waste head-on. With packaging changes like resealability and pack size variety, as well as consumer education campaigns and standardized date labeling, companies can lead their downstream supply chain towards less food waste. Better packaging design and less waste can be a winning recipe for the climate.
To learn more and dig deeper into additional resources, access the guide here.