The Role for Packaging in Reducing Food Waste
To state the obvious, packaging has a vital role in minimizing food waste, the topic of a new study from RMIT University’s Centre for Design. The report explores where and why food waste is generated in supply chains, and looks at the role for innovative and sustainable primary, secondary and tertiary packaging in meeting this challenge. The coverage includes some discussion of the role of reusable packaging.
Research for the study, titled, The role of packaging in minimising food waste in the supply chain of the future, was led by RMIT Senior Research Fellow Dr Karli Verghese. Sponsored by CHEP Australia, the report addresses a gap identified in a 2012 white paper, the Australian Food and Grocery Council’s Future of Packaging.
“Food security is an emerging challenge for both policy makers and companies in the fresh and manufactured food supply chains,” says Dr Verghese, “however, no significant research had previously been conducted into the role that packaging plays in minimizing food waste in Australia.
“Packaging actually plays a critical role in protecting fresh produce and processed food in transit, in storage, at point of sale and prior to consumption. In doing so it helps deliver a wide range of functions while reducing food waste.”
Where Food Waste Occurs
While households are the largest generator of food waste to landfill (2.7 million tonnes each year), the report shows that in the commercial and industrial sector the largest generators are food services (661,000 tonnes), followed by food manufacturing (312,000 tonnes), retailing (179,000 tonnes) and wholesale distribution (83,000 tonnes). Noteworthy, food waste recovery rates are extremely high in the manufacturing sector, with 90 per cent of waste repurposed.
“While some food waste in the supply chain is inevitable – for example trimmings from fresh produce and preparation waste in manufacturing and food services – other waste is avoidable,” Dr Verghese continues.
“Our research identified opportunities for improvement where food waste is incurred through things like poor inventory management, overstocking of shelves or product damage during transport and handling.” She believes there are opportunities to minimize food waste through packaging innovation and design, such as improved ventilation and temperature control for fresh produce, and better understanding the dynamics between different levels of packaging, to ensure they are designed fit-for-purpose.
Opportunities to Reduce Food Waste Through Packaging
According to the study, attention to packaging provides a number of opportunities to reduce food waste. 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. This may require the development of tailored solutions for individual products.
- 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. Packaging developers need to understand the distribution process and where and why waste occurs.
- 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 (the home or food services provider). The packaging itself also needs to be recoverable to minimise overall environmental impacts.
- Adoption of new packaging materials and technologies, such as modified atmosphere packaging and oxygen scavengers, to extend the shelf life of foods.
- 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. Confusion about date marking results in food being thrown away when it is still safe to eat.
- Product and packaging development to cater for changing consumption patterns and smaller households. Single and smaller serve products will reduce waste by meeting the needs of single and two person households.
- Collaboration between manufacturers and retailers to improve the industry’s understanding of food waste in the supply chain. Greater attention to be given to where and why this occurs, tracking over time, will reduce the costs and environmental impacts of waste.
- More synchronised supply chains that use intelligent packaging and data sharing to reduce excess or out-of-date stock.
- Increased use of retail ready packaging to reduce double handling and damage and improve stock turnover, while ensuring that it is designed for effective product protection and recoverability (reuse or recycling) at end of life.
The Role for Reusables
While not central to this study, it notes that reusable plastic packaging has been introduced as primary or secondary packaging in some supply chains to improve efficiencies or extend shelf life, particularly for fresh produce. It cites evidence of “lower spoilage rates for some varieties of fresh produce in reusable packaging as a result of both improved structural functionality and better pre-cooling rates due to the increased venting area.”
Bananas are identified as a logical extension of reusable packaging usage, due to that product’s high loss rate, noting the reported success of ASDA’s introduction of reusable containers for bananas in the UK.
Other opportunities suggested for reusables included a half crate for lettuces and tailored packaging solutions for punnets (e.g. cherry tomatoes), squash, ginger, garlic and shallots.
One grower interviewed suggested that more products be transitioned to reusable crates, but that it be done so in a standardized system so as to eliminate the inefficiencies of managing different container systems:
“We’d like to see more product move into plastic crates. They have better air flow than cardboard which means the product cools down quicker and lasts longer. All products generate some heat, and breathability improves with the crates. There is also less damage in transport. [But] we would like to see one standard crate system across all of our major customers. At the moment it’s not very efficient because we have different crates so we have to pack to order. It would be more efficient and easier to manage if there was only one system.”
The report cautions that while plastic crates provide more robust container for food suppliers, shock transfer may be more pronounced than with softer corrugated packages if mishandled. On the other hand, it notes that robust reusable containers may be less susceptible to piercing by sharp objects. It stressed that reusable plastic packaging can produce other environmental benefits compared to single use packaging depending upon on “the product, the supply chain and the number of times the package is reused.”
Reduced Handling, Right Sizing of Packaging Can Help Reduce Waste
A retail ready format can also help reduce food waste. Through eliminating the need to unpack produce to stock retail displays, the amount of handling and the likelihood of product damage can be reduced. Likewise, the deployment of reusable display pallets can provide “one-touch” solutions that have the potential to limit handling related damange. The study also underscores potential benefits related to modular or fractional display pallets, saying “Fractional pallets (half or quarter size) can improve stock rotation by allowing stores to match the merchandising unit with the rate of sales. This can also have benefits for waste if it reduces the likelihood of product going out of date.”
Bottom line, the study concludes that within “the fresh produce sector there are opportunities to develop new forms of distribution packaging for target markets. Loss and damage to fresh fruits and vegetables during distribution could be reduced through targeted packaging solutions that meet individual requirements for product protection, ventilation and ripening.”
“As a partner in many food supply chains, and a leader in reusable packaging with an inherently sustainable business model, CHEP wants to be part of the solution and we would welcome opportunities to work with industry to create even more sustainable packaging solutions,” says Phillip Austin of CHEP Australia & New Zealand in explaining CHEP’s support of the research.
Clearly, packaging that best delivers benefits such as superior physical protection, optimal atmospheric conditions, right-sizing, intelligence, consistent date coding, and fit for purpose can help. Having said that, the current challenges for reusables still linger with respect to such issues as industry RFID uptake and the tradeoff between deploying commodity specific reusable crates or RPCs versus the critical mass of standard sizing needed to cost-effectively facilitate pooling. More work is needed, and this report offers initial steps forward.