The FAO draws a distinction between food waste and food loss. Waste is typically associated with developed countries, where it happens at the retail or consumer end of the chain and for reasons such as over-buying, preparing meals that are too large, confusion over date labels, purchasing too close to the end of the shelf life, and quality standards that over-emphasise appearance. Loss, on the other hand, is seen more in developing countries, where 95% of the damage is unintentional. It happens usually at the production end of the chain due to a lack of financial, managerial or technical capabilities, including poor harvesting techniques, inadequate storage and transport facilities, limited cooling infrastructure, or unreliable packaging.
Packaging is increasingly versatile
The packaging of food is thus one of the factors that determine whether the product is going to be consumed as anticipated or is going to contribute to the estimated USD1trn worth of food that is lost or wasted each year around the world. However packaging does more than maintaining the shelf life and the appearance of a product. A report in 2010 by PwC, an audit and consultancy company, identifies four key roles played by packaging; it preserves and protects the product, conveys information, serves as brand promotion, and offers convenience, for example, by enabling a product to be placed directly in the oven or the microwave without first having to be transferred to another utensil. Secondary functions for packaging include ensuring product traceability and providing tamper indications.
Decades ago retail packaging was not much more than a brown paper bag or even a sheet of newspaper and a length of string. At the start of the 20th century packaging for food and beverages in the US consisted mainly of tin-plated steel cans, glass bottles, and wooden crates*. Packaging continued to evolve over the following years including during and between the two World Wars when technologies such as aluminium foil, the plastics polyethylene and polyvinylidene chloride, and flexible packaging to store food (and ammunition) under harsh environmental conditions were developed. The advent of supermarkets with their supply chains that moved from being local to national and then international also played a role as products needed to be able to travel great distances and still arrive intact. The increase in industrial processing of food and the lack of time among consumers to prepare meals from fresh raw materials are among the other reasons that placed great demands on the way products were wrapped and contributed to the development of a highly sophisticated packaging industry.
Global production capacity of bioplastics is forecast to shift decisively to Asia and Latin America by 2016.
Nanotechnology offers new opportunities
While metal, glass and paperboard continued to be used as packaging materials for food, developments in other substances, particularly plastics, made them increasingly useful as packaging materials. Innovations in packaging included active packaging that did not just inertly contain the product, but that could also eliminate oxygen, moisture, odour or other unwanted elements with the use of absorbers, or emit substances such as aromas when desired. This lead to smart or intelligent packaging, which responded to the atmosphere within the package or the shipping environment and could trigger an active packaging feature or send a warning to handlers. More recently, nanotechnology is being deployed in food packaging to give greater strength, better barrier properties, increased resistance to heat and cold, and antimicrobial effects to prolong shelf life. It is also used to embed films with sensors that can warn users if the product has been infected with food germs. The detection of bacteria, viruses, toxins, and allergens using nanotechnology is possible. However, the use of nanotechnology for packaging food has its share of detractors too. Environmental groups say too little is known about the impact of nanotechnology on human health and the environment. This is also an issue when it comes to the disposal of these materials whether by recycling, composting, or by other means as it would mean the release of nanoparticles into the surroundings. Packaging for fish and seafood, very delicate and highly perishable products when fresh or live, and that are, according to the FAO, the most globally traded food product have also benefited from the evolution of packaging. Today the material used in food packaging include, glass, metals such as aluminium and steel, plastics and plastic laminates, paper board, paper, and paper laminates.
Sustainability of packaging increases gradually
While the importance and increasing versatility of packaging for food cannot be denied, today questions are increasingly being asked about its sustainability. In the US the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, an industry group that seeks to make packaging more environmentally friendly defines sustainable packaging as:
- Being beneficial, safe & healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle;
- Meeting market criteria for performance and cost;
- Sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy;
- Optimising the use of renewable or recycled source materials;
- Manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices;
- Made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle;
- Physically designed to optimize materials and energy;
- Effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles;
The sustainability of packaging is part of a wider interest among consumers, policy makers, industry, non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders in a low carbon, more sustainable, and more competitive economy. In the EU, policy makers both at the EU and national levels are trying to promote resource efficiency and close resource use and waste loops. Companies responding to these policies discovered that efforts to increase recycling and minimise waste had side benefits of improving overall efficiency and increasing competitiveness. Part of the reason for these policies is to reduce the amount of waste that is generated, which in the EU amounts to five tonnes per capita per year of which packaging waste is estimated at 3%. But waste is also seen as a resource in itself with an economic value and an increasingly important role in decoupling resource use from economic growth. In addition, waste management has become an industry generating significant employment and a turnover of well over of EUR100bn.
Bioplastics are part of the answer
As customers seek environmentally friendlier products companies are increasingly trying to respond to this demand. For example, the London Olympic Games in 2012 were probably the most environmentally friendly ever, providing green transport options, housed in green buildings and with minimal impact on natural habitats. The organisers wanted to make them the first zero-waste games in history. Helping achieve this goal were some of the world’s biggest corporations, including the main sponsor Coca-Cola which announced last September that it planned to increase the use of plant-based material in its plastic bottles with the aim of using the technology in all its plastic bottles by 2020. The use of plastics synthesised from plant materials has been growing in popularity over the years, their use increasing with greater awareness of the environment and the importance of sustainability. European Bioplastics, a trade association for the bioplastics industry, anticipates that bioplastic production capacity will grow five fold from 1.2m tonnes in 2011 to 6m tonnes in 2016.
Multiple advantages of plant-based plastics
Bioplastics, according to European Bioplastics, refers to plastics that are either bio-based, biodegradable or both, and they offer two main advantages over conventional plastics – they reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, and the production of greenhouse gases. In addition, if they are biodegradable they offer more options for recovery at the end of the products life. Bio-based plastics are derived from plant biomass such as cellulose, corn, or sugarcane, while biodegradable plastics can be converted by a chemical process that uses microorganisms in the environment, to carbon dioxide, water, and compost. But the property of biodegradability depends on the chemical structure of the product and not on the raw materials that went into its creation. Thus, products based on fossil resources can also biodegrade. The strongest growth in bioplastic production capacity is forecast to be from the non-biodegradable bioplastics such as bio-based polyethylene (PE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but production capacity for biodegradable bioplastics such as polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) is also expected to increase significantly.
Increases in the use of bioplastics can be attributed to their environmental friendliness, wide consumer acceptance, and the increasing cost of fossil fuels. They also offer useful technical properties and increased functionality, as well as reduced costs due to cheaper raw materials and greater recyclability. Food producing companies are also discovering that that their customers are not only interested in the environmental impact of the food itself but are increasingly looking at the packaging in the same light. So there are sound commercial reasons for going sustainable.
Packaging design also contributes to sustainability
If the use of more environmentally materials is the first step along the way to more sustainable packaging, product design is the next step. Packaging should be designed to be repaired, reused, and recycled in order to change the production, consumption, waste chain. Sustainable packaging design needs to look at the complete life cycle of the product to understand its true environmental implications. Each component of the product needs to be evaluated to find out whether it can be effectively replaced with a more sustainable version. If possible the packaging should be reusable and when it reaches the end of its lifetime it should be possible to recycle it without having to worry about some parts of the product (such as labels) contaminating the recycling stream. The design should take into account the space required for storage and transport and endeavour to reduce it as much as possible. Packaging should also be conceived to be emptied completely without leaving remnants of the contents stuck in inaccessible corners in order to reduce food wastage.
The use of environmentally friendly materials and better design for food packaging will reduce its impact on the environment and contribute to delinking economic growth from the generation of waste. For companies it can also make commercial sense as their customers are increasingly concerned about sustainability.