Use efficient packaging to reduce food waste
Packaging can reduce food waste by extending shelf life and preventing contamination. However, packaging strategies should be carefully designed to minimize waste and emissions.
Food waste is responsible for 6% of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (1). Approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted, leading to economic losses and nutritional insecurity, as well as environmental damage (2). Climate change poses an increasingly large threat to crop yields, which makes reducing food waste even more critical.
A lack of appropriate packaging and transportation is a leading cause of food waste. According to one study, a quarter of residential food waste is due to inadequate packaging (3). Packaging prevents food damage and spoilage in both retail and domestic settings. It extends the shelf life of foods and protects against contamination and damage by providing a barrier against microbes, moisture, and UV light.
Adopting more efficient food packaging technologies could divert around 72,000 tons of food waste from landfills in the US alone, according to Rethink Food Waste through Economics and Data (ReFED). This represents an annual reduction of 329,000 tons of GHG emissions (4).
The packaging that retailers and food producers choose can also reduce food waste at the consumption stage of the food supply chain. For instance, packaging designs that allow for flexibility and portioning enable consumers to buy food in the quantities they need and save leftovers for future use.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals include a target to halve food waste by 2030. To accomplish this, the following levers must be applied across every stage of the supply chain:
Use renewable packaging materials
Although packaging extends food shelf life and prevents spoilage, it has a significant environmental impact – plastic packaging accounts for nearly 70% of annual UK plastic waste (5) and a Carbon Trust analysis estimates that global emissions from single-use plastics in 2021 were roughly equivalent to the UK’s annual emissions (6). Compostable and biodegradable packaging can help minimize food waste while reducing overall pollution and GHG emissions compared to traditional plastic packaging.
Integrate on-farm technologies
Integrating harvesting and packaging technologies represents a promising solution to food waste. Robotic harvesting technologies such as Harvest CROO Robotics simultaneously harvest and package crops and have the potential to greatly reduce food waste at the production stage (4).
Apply active packaging
Active packaging builds on traditional packaging by introducing additional functionalities to packaged products, such as the ability to limit oxygen exposure. It can therefore extend shelf life and improve the safety and sensory properties of food, while maintaining its quality. Currently, oxidation accounts for 25% of post-harvest food spoilage; active packaging technologies would greatly reduce the quantity of food wasted in this way (7).
A range of other active packaging interventions exist. These reduce oxidation and overripening (by removing the hormone ethylene, which causes food to ripen). They can also prevent baked products from going stale prematurely by preventing moisture migration, and can even be designed to reduce flavor loss.
Ensure correctly sized packaging
Industrialized food processing technologies often trim food products to comply with packaging requirements. These trimmings are often discarded, further contributing to food waste. Using a range of packaging formats and sizes can enable food producers to choose the packaging that best suits their products, without having to discard excess food.
Implement modified atmosphere packaging
Modified atmosphere packaging techniques involve manipulating the composition of air that food items are exposed to. For example, nitrogen gas flushing reduces oxygen levels inside packaging, and packets of oxygen scavengers can soak up excess oxygen. Other techniques include one-way valves (commonly used on coffee bags), which release built up gases inside the packaging. Each of these methods helps slow the decomposition and subsequent spoilage of food.
Employ reusable bulk packaging
Without effective packaging, food often gets damaged while being transported. Collapsible metal crates have been reported to save 10-15% of losses compared to conventional packaging during transport, as they absorb shock (8).
Preventing food waste would reduce anthropogenic GHG (notably methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide) emissions produced by decaying food by 6-8% (9). Reducing food waste will therefore greatly contribute to meeting global targets in line with the Paris Agreement.
According to the Waste and Resource Action Program (WRAP), reducing GHG emissions associated with food and drink by 2030 (against a 2015 baseline) is an achievable near-term target aligned to a 1.5 °C pathway and meeting further targets for Net Zero by 2040 (10). Improving the efficacy of food packaging systems could provide a promising route to achieving this target.
FAO estimated that global 2011 GHG emissions would have been reduced by 1.4 gigatons had food waste losses at the distribution and consumption stages halved, and food losses in the upstream stages reduced. This value corresponds to 3% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions; reducing food waste can have a significant decarbonization impact (11).
Improved brand image: Consumers are increasingly aware of the impacts of food waste. Altering business plans to align with environmental targets could appeal to customers and therefore increase overall profits.
Financial returns: UK hospitality businesses lose an average of £12,376.24 per year through food waste alone (12). A recent study by WRAP found that UK companies spending £1 on food waste management saw a return of £14 on average (13). Efficient packaging also helps optimize transportation, which reduces transport emissions and fuel costs.
Compatibility with e-commerce trends: As more and more consumers shop online, many food and drink brands have found it beneficial to modify their packaging methods to suit e-commerce orders and prevent waste. For example, the wine brand Garcon Wines has redesigned its bottles to be flat, and now uses packaging that enables bottles to be delivered through letterboxes. This takes up less space and reduces the brand’s carbon footprint, while maintaining packaging quality (14).
Supply chain engagement: Working collaboratively with supply chain partners can build better relationships and encourage knowledge sharing.
Upfront investment: Large upfront investment is often needed to modify packaging strategies; larger food and drink brands may have the capacity to do this, but this may be challenging for smaller businesses. Companies can mitigate these costs by co-investing in packaging solutions with their peers. Most supply chains are commoditized and therefore multiple companies will be purchasing the same, or similar, products.
Impact beyond climate and business
Reducing food waste relieves pressure on landfills. Sending less food to landfills can also minimize water and soil contamination, as food waste in landfills can produce a harmful liquid called leachate that can leak into local water supplies.
Some biodegradable packaging takes as long as virgin plastic to biodegrade in a landfill and generally degrade only under industrial composting conditions. Companies that decide to switch to biodegradable packaging should first verify whether industrial composting facilities are readily available in their region, and clearly state how the packaging should be disposed of by the consumer.
Typical business profile
Most of the solutions above are suitable for companies purchasing or producing packaging for food (e.g., food manufacturers, retailers). Integrated harvesting and packaging solutions and reusable bulk packaging will be most suitable for food producers and food logistics companies respectively.
To implement packaging solutions that effectively reduce food waste, companies should follow these steps:
Assess needs: Conduct an analysis to identify where the most food loss is occurring in the supply chain and what is causing it (e.g., physical damage during transportation, oxidation in stores) and consider packaging solutions that address specific issues.
Calculate the environmental impact of the packaging solution: Conducting a lifecycle analysis of the packaging solution will help ensure that the emissions reductions from minimizing food waste aren’t cancelled out by the emissions associated with the new packaging. It is also important to consider the environmental impact of the packaging relative to the environmental impact of the food product itself. For example, red meat is very resource-intensive to produce, so packaging might only constitute 0.3% of the emissions associated with a packaged red meat product. In this scenario, the amount of packaging could increase threefold and still contribute to lowering the environmental impact of the packaged product, as long as 1% of the meat is saved from going to waste (15).
Engage with stakeholders: For retailers and food service providers, this will involve engaging with food manufacturers (to encourage adoption of more efficient packaging) and suppliers of efficient packaging solutions. If significant changes to supplier operations are required to meet a retailer’s waste reduction goals, both parties can enter into investment contracts. Under these types of agreements, a food manufacturer may agree to invest in sustainable packaging technologies in exchange for a retailer committing to working together long-term on favorable terms (16).
Implement and monitor: Set clear KPIs with short, medium, and long-term goals that are stretching but realistic. Introduce the identified solutions and monitor their success over time with respect to your targets.
Effective coordination between the following stakeholders is key to implementing sustainable packaging solutions:
1. Internal stakeholders within food manufacturers or retailers:
Direct and indirect procurement teams handling relationships with suppliers (packaging companies, food manufacturers, transport, and logistics providers)
Product development teams identifying the ideal packaging conditions of specific food products
Operations/supply chain teams collecting data on food waste and other bottlenecks at each stage of the food value chain
Legal teams advising on the terms of supplier contracts
Sustainability teams ensuring that packaging choices align with the company’s wider sustainability strategy, as well as its food waste strategy
Marketing and business intelligence teams collecting information on consumer buying behaviors and how changes to packaging influences consumer choices
2. External stakeholders:
Key suppliers, including packaging producers, logistics providers, and (for retailers and food service providers) food manufacturers
Industry initiatives, such as WRAP in the UK, which has produced a Food Waste Reduction Roadmap with key steps for food service providers, retailers, food manufacturers, and best practice case studies (17)
Key parameters to consider
Companies should consider the following key parameters when adopting efficient food packaging strategies:
Understand your obligations under packaging legislation: Retailers and food producers should verify whether relevant packaging laws apply in their region. These may state what materials packaging should contain and how packaging must be handled at end of life. For example, under the UK's Plastic Packaging Tax, plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled plastic will be charged at £200/ton (18).
Eventual subsidies available: There may be relevant funding in your area. For example, the European Commission and the European Health and Digital Executive Agency (HaDEA) frequently give out grants through the Single Market Program to help businesses monitor and prevent food waste in their operations (19,20).
Implementation and operations tips
Companies should consider the following recommendations when implementing sustainable packaging programs:
Invest in a digital system that can assist with handling large volumes of real-time data on a number of SKUs. This can help retailers and food producers comply with legal requirements to collect data on the packaging they handle.
Educate consumers on the benefits of choosing products sealed using sustainable packaging to help create a market for lower-carbon forms of packaging.
Invest in further development of active packing technologies to lower their roll-out costs and promote their uptake across the industry.
Implement a good waste management system to ensure that packaging isn’t disposed of in landfill/oceans.