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Packaging: less is not always best for avoiding food waste and reducing emissions

by Mark Sabourin
EcoLog, 6/5/2020 2:08:00 PM

A new research report, “Less Food Loss and Waste, Less Packaging Waste”, by the National Zero Waste Council warns that when it comes to food, our efforts to reduce packaging may end up doing more harm than good if it results in more food in landfills.

Avoiding one tonne of food waste prevents four tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions, said Malcolm Brodie, chair of the National Zero Waste Council, in a release accompanying the research report, and appropriate packaging helps food stay fresh.

In Canada, roughly one-third of the food produced and distributed never gets eaten. It is lost or wasted along the supply chain or at home. The National Zero Waste Council says that by 2030, global food loss and waste will reach 2.1 billion tonnes.

“Discarded packaging has become an emblem of the linear economy — it’s something we all deal with every day so it’s easy to overestimate its environmental impact compared to food waste,” said Jim Downham, vice chair of the National Zero Waste Council and CEO of PAC Packaging Consortium, in a release accompanying the research report.

Virgin packaging materials account for only 5% of total greenhouse gas emissions from the food sector. “It’s crucial that we get packaging right to keep food fresh and safe and to convey important information to customers,” said Downham.

The research report considered the effectiveness of four common types of packaging (plastic, glass, metal and paper) for extending the shelf-life of 12 product types typically found in a grocery store. Some foods, such as granulated sugar and dry pasta, benefit from bulk or unpackaged sales, but for most packaged foods, the greatest benefit was found in optimizing packaging rather than completely eliminating it.

Optimizing doesn’t necessarily mean reducing, though. In some instances, the research report found that the greatest environmental benefit came from more packaging, not less. More robust packaging of frozen pizza led to a 75% reduction in the number of units that were damaged before reaching consumers. A change that increased packaging by 4% allowed shippers to cut secondary and tertiary packaging, to stack pallets more efficiently and to cut transportation costs.

The percentage of eight-pound processed hams going to waste was reduced from 7.13% to 1.25% by increasing packaging weight by a quarter. The result was a big reduction in total CO2 equivalent emissions and a cut in operating costs.

The research report makes a number of recommendations. Manufacturers should embrace the principles of a circular economy and design packaging for reuse, recycling and composting. Governments should require minimum recycled content and promote extended producer responsibility. Consumers need to be made more aware of recycling and composting opportunities, best practices for food storage, and the meaning of “best before” dates.

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