Recycling cans, bottles, paper and plastic has become a no-brainer in households across the country as Americans and the towns they live in strive to grow greener. That said, what happens to the package at the end of its life is only one of several factors that go into a package’s sustainability score.

Food, beverage and consumer product manufacturers will cut about 4 billion pounds of waste from the packaging they generate between 2005 and 2020, according to a 2011 study from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, with a combination of efforts, including using fewer materials in the process, using more sustainable materials, and making more packaging that’s recyclable and that degrades faster.

Cutting waste from the process comes as the industry moves away from considering packaging by itself and toward the realization that “packaging exists because of its role in the supply chain,” said Ronald Cotterman, an officer at the non-profit American Institute for Packaging and the Environment, aka AMERIPEN. Recycling may be top-of-mind because it’s one of the sustainability efforts that is most visible to consumers, but manufacturers also have to consider sustainable packaging, things like the amount of material that goes into the packaging and the amount of water and energy it takes to get the product to the consumer, aspects the end user doesn’t see.

In addition, they also need to factor in several other consumer-facing aspects including convenience, safety and shelf-life, he says. The greatest innovations in food packaging are likely to come in the areas where there’s the most waste, he says, namely produce, dairy, bakery and meats.

Cotterman, who is also sustainability vice president at global packaging provider Sealed Air, says the industry is likely to see future efforts on sustainability to focus on three key areas.

First, there’s labeling. Currently, confusion over the meaning of “sell by,” “use by” and “best by” dates often leads consumers to throw food away when it’s still good, and cutting waste in that area will mean clearing up that confusion. “We need to understand how to better date things so consumers understand and so they reflect the actual shelf life. That’s an area that’s poised for reform and I think we will start to see a lot of experimentation,” he said.

Next, portioning. Packaging that gives consumers a better way to use only what they need when they need it, like resealable packages and individual portion packaging, will continue to be a growing area. For example — shoppers at Costco used to buy big value packages of chicken pieces, which they would either have to use all at once or repackage into smaller portions at home. Now, the chicken is available in perforated packaging that lets consumers tear off enough for two people at a time. “With that concept, you can keep the chicken in the package and it will last longer,” he said.

Finally, technology that will extend shelf life. Creating products that last longer has been an issue for shippers, but now manufacturers and retailers are searching for solutions that keep food fresh on the shelf for longer periods. “In the supply chain, there’s a growing sense that we need to give consumers more shelf time,” he said.

Going back to chicken, AMERIPEN issued a report last fall on the role packaging has played in cutting waste and keeping the price of poultry stable even as demand has soared. Packaging innovations came as consumers changed the way the buy their chickens — in 1962, 83% of chickens were purchased whole and had to be cooked immediately; in 2012, only about 12% are bought that way, the report says. These days, shoppers buy packages of the pieces they want, in packaging that has been improved to not only preserve the chicken for longer periods but also prevent the leakage that can lead to contamination.

“Consumer preferences for chicken have changed, and packaging had to change with it to cut down on the amount of food waste,” Cotterman said.

In addition to innovation, there also needs to be consumer education on the best ways to store fresh fruits and vegetables for optimum freshness and shelf life, including which items need refrigeration and which do better on the counter or in a cabinet, Cotterman said.

Education is key to cutting food waste, as evidenced by research from the Waste & Resources Action Programme in the U.K., which tallied up the volume of food waste in Britain in 2007 and again in 2012, and found that the amount of food and drink that was thrown away fell 21% between the two reports.

“It’s clear that consumers don’t understand the value of packaging and the role it plays in food waste,” Cotterman said. “They’re doing a lot of work on consumer awareness.”

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