With the global population set to soar and the growth of our agricultural industry threatened by climate change and competing land uses, Australia needs to toss out food waste – and packaging is the key.
Around 40 percent of all food intended for human consumption in developed countries ends up as waste.
In Australia, 4.2 million tonnes of food sees its way to landfill each year: 2.7 million tonnes from households and 1.5 million from the commercial and industrial sector.
And with the global demand for food expected to jump 77 percent by 2050 (compared to 2007), food and beverage manufacturers need to reassess not only how they go about making their products, but what they’re doing to ensure they survive the supply chain and, at the end of the day, are consumed, not wasted.
RMIT University recently released a report, commissioned by CHEP Australia, titled The Role of Packaging in Minimising Food Waste in the Supply Chain of the Future, which examined where and why food waste occurs along the food supply chain.
An Australian-first, the research draws on an international literature review as well as interviews with representatives from 15 organisations from within Australia’s food and packaging industries, focusing on food waste that occurs prior to consumption.
Australia’s food manufacturing industry is the second largest non-domestic contributor to food waste, sending 312,000 tonnes to landfill each year, beaten only by the food services sector, which generates 661,000 tonnes of food waste annually.
But this doesn’t mean our food and beverage manufacturers are wasteful or negligent – most of the food waste that occurs in the industry is unavoidable, and almost 90 percent is recovered and used as animal feed, compost, or energy.
Helen Lewis, adjunct professor and environmental consultant at RMIT University, told Food magazine, “The recovery rate in the food manufacturing sector is already very high, so the focus needs to be on reducing the amount of waste that is generated in the first place.
“Most manufacturers can do more to reduce the amount of waste they generate in distribution and at a retail level by looking more closely at where and why this occurs. For example, if manufacturers don’t specify their distribution packaging carefully, it may fail during transport or handling and result in products being damaged and thrown away. There is definitely an opportunity to improve the level of packaging expertise within companies to ensure packaging is specified correctly,” she says.
The study lists a number of reasons for food loss and waste at each stage of the supply chain, including damage from pests and disease as well as unpredictable weather conditions in agricultural production; products not meeting retailers’ quality and/or appearance specifications; and issues in distribution including damage in transit/storage due to packaging failures and inadequate remaining shelf lives.
The report then went on to identify a number of opportunities to reduce food waste through packaging improvements. These include:
- Distribution packaging that provides better protection and shelf life for fresh produce as it moves from the farm to the processor, wholesaler or retailer
- Distribution packaging that supports recovery of surplus and unsaleable fresh produce from farms and redirects it to food rescue organisations
- Improved design of secondary packaging to ensure that it is fit for purpose, i.e. that it adequately protects food products as they move through the supply chain
- A continuing shift to pre-packed and processed foods to extend the shelf life of food products and reduce waste in distribution and at the point of consumption
- Adoption of new packaging materials and technologies to extend shelf life of foods (see table below)
- Education of manufacturers, retailers and consumers about the meaning of use-by and best before date marks on primary packaging to ensure that these are used appropriately
- Product and packaging developments to cater for changing consumption patterns and smaller households
- Collaboration between manufacturers and retailers to improve the industry’s understanding of food waste in the supply chain, with greater attention given to where and why this occurs
- More synchronised supply chains that use intelligent packaging and data sharing to reduce excess or out-of-date stock
- Increase use of retail ready packaging to reduce double handling and damage and improve stock turnover, while ensuring that it’s designed for effective product protection and recoverability at end of life.
This list of recommendations indicates that improvements can be made to both primary packaging and secondary/tertiary packaging in order to protect a product up until it’s on a retailer’s shelf, while also boosting its longevity once it’s there.
CHEP Australia has a significant interest in the study’s findings, not just because it commissioned the report but also because it describes its pallet, container and crate pooling services as an inherently sustainable business model, preventing one-way packaging and mimimising resources.
Phillip Austin, president of CHEP Australia and New Zealand, said the company’s reusable plastic crates are a good example of both primary and secondary/tertiary packaging that can extend shelf life.
“CHEP’s reusable plastic crates eliminate the need to repack produce as it moves through the supply chain, which reduces the opportunity for damage during handling. The strength of the crate and better ventilation and cooling rates also help to protect the produce,” he told Food magazine.
“Reusable packaging is more robust than one-way cartons and less susceptible to piercing by sharp objects or crushing as it moves through the supply chain.”
Austin said an independent life cycle assessment of CHEP’s reusable plastic crates shows they save 8,000 tonnes of solid waste, 64,000 tonnes of carbon emissions and 460 million litres of water from the supply chain every year.
An Australian grower interviewed as part of the RMIT University study (all of whom remain anonymous), agrees that reusable plastic crates can improve efficiencies and extends produce’s saleability.
“Plastic crates allow for better ventilation and better protection. They also support better transport utilisation because the pallets can be stacked higher. They don’t require as much stretch wrap. There is less handling, although the crates aren’t used as much for retail display as they were originally. Plastic crates allow us to wet the product, which helps extend shelf life (unlike cardboard),” the grower said.
While of course secondary/tertiary packaging technologies such as reusable plastic crates can have a positive influence on reducing food waste, a large proportion of the industry’s focus, as the issue of sustainability becomes more and more prominent, will be on developments in primary packaging, as this is where shelf life is a key consideration in packaging design.
Confusion surrounding the meaning of ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates is a significant contributor to food waste in Australia. Consumers often dispose of products when they’re still of a good, edible quality, and poor stock rotation systems or materials handling processes could see perfectly good foods discarded by manufacturers, which not only wastes food but comes at a significant cost to the company as well.
“There does appear to be a lot of confusion about the difference between use by and best before dates, and when a food is still safe to eat. It’s a problem for consumers, who may get the two mixed up and throw away food that is still edible,” Lewis says.
The NSW’s government’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign is managed by the Environment Protection Authority and run in partnership with retailers, food manufacturers, local government authorities and community groups in an effort to reduce food waste in the state.
While 97 percent of respondents in its Food Waste Avoidance Benchmark study believed they store their food correctly and poor storage doesn’t contribute to food waste, those that did identify poor storage as a contributor to waste cited a lack of understanding of storage instructions/conditions and not using food before its used by or best before date as the main contributors.
Sixty-four percent of respondents knew the difference between use by and best before dates, but the Food Waste Avoidance Benchmark study concluded that more work can be done to clarify these definitions and reduce consumer confusion.
“Food manufacturers can help by ensuring that the dates are clearly marked on the packaging, not hidden under a seam or written in tiny font. They need to be readable. They can also provide more information to consumers about the meaning of date marks and how to store food correctly to extend its life,” Lewis says.
Where today’s use by and best before dates sometimes fall short, ‘intelligent’ or ‘interactive’ packaging technologies represent opportunities for both manufacturers and consumers to be given real time information on a product’s quality.
The RMIT University study says “Supply chain collaboration and data sharing could be facilitated by ‘intelligent’ or ‘interactive’ packaging technologies. Intelligent food packaging can provide real time use-by or expiration data, product tracing and temperature indicators, which are either time-based, activated by certain chemicals, driven by radio frequency identification data (RFID), or have thermal sensors, to provide better ‘on demand’ feedback to various supply chain stakeholders.”
Helen Lewis agrees that these ‘smart’ technologies could be a game-changer in the food manufacturing industry.
“Smart labels will become more important as technologies improve and costs come down. They can help companies to track and manage inventories to reduce waste in the supply chain. They can also be used by manufacturers, retailers and consumers to identify when a food has spent time outside of its required temperature range,” she told Food magazine.
Will more packaging help?
It might seem a little ironic that one of the strongest themes of the RMIT University study is the need to extend shelf life and reduce food waste by increasing the amount of packaging used on food products.
If food manufacturers and producers are to curb the amount of waste they send to landfill, shouldn’t they be reducing their reliance on packaging, not increasing it?
The RMIT University report says that the industry can reduce food waste by supporting a growing shift towards processed and pre-packed foods, while also considering product and packaging developments that cater for single or smaller serve products, therefore reducing waste by meeting the needs of single and two person households.
But this theory of using packaging to enhance shelf life extends beyond processed foods. Despite what many may argue, keeping fresh produce in its natural state isn’t necessarily the best option when it comes to product longevity.
The challenge, according to the study, is to find a balance or establish “trade-offs” between convenience, packaging, shelf life and product waste.
However it’s a case by case, or rather product by product, situation. A fresh produce supplier interviewed for the research noted that plastic film around a bunch of fresh herbs can extend its shelf life from two to five days. Packing fresh herbs in punnets (another growing consumer trend) doubles this again.
However, some cut vegetables that are washed, peeled and cut before hitting retailers’ shelves suffer a reduced shelf life thanks to faster physiological deterioration and microbial degradation.
If Australia follows current trends in countries such as the US, we will soon be seeing a lot more pre-packed fresh produce, says Helen Lewis.
“This is already happening, partly in response to consumer interest in convenient and pre-prepared foods such as salad mixes, which use multi-layer and modified atmosphere packaging. More sophisticated packaging is being developed for specific product categories, such as seafood,” she says.
“The trend towards more packaging, particularly for fresh produce, involves a conscious trade-off. We will end up using more packaging to reduce food waste, and some of this packaging is not yet widely recyclable. However, in most cases the benefits appear to outweigh the costs from an environmental point of view. This is because we know that the environmental footprint of food is so much greater than the impact of the packaging, when you consider all of the energy, water, land and chemicals that go into growing, processing and transporting food over its life cycle.
“A small amount of packaging can extend the product’s shelf life and ensure that it gets consumed rather than thrown away. To manage this trade-off it’s important that all packaging is designed to minimise environmental impacts and to be recyclable at the end of its life.”
So less isn’t necessarily best when it comes to packaging and sustainability. No doubt consumers in Australia are becoming more environmentally-conscious, but they’re also seeking convenient, affordable meal solutions, so as The Role of Packaging in Minimising Food Waste in the Supply Chain of the Future suggests, food manufacturers need to establish “trade-offs” to ensure all parties – consumers, businesses and of course the environment – are not only happy and healthy, but are getting the most out of their food – for the long term.
Examples of primary packaging technologies to extend shelf life