The danger of food packaging misconceptions

Tuesday, 09 May, 2023

The danger of food packaging misconceptions

RMIT-led research has revealed that most Australians think food packaging waste is a bigger environmental issue than food waste — but the opposite is true as Australians have been found to waste four times more food than food packaging.

Experts have called for a more nuanced approach to help people understand packaging’s role in reducing food waste, rather than a simple war on plastic.

The research, supported by the Fight Food Waste Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), surveyed 965 Australians on their perceptions of the role of packaging in reducing food waste. The majority of negative perceptions of packaging were due to it being seen as a single-use waste product.

RMIT Project lead Professor Linda Brennan said packaging can play an important role in preventing food waste.

“Packaging designed with food waste reduction in mind can keep food fresher for longer and provide protection from damage,” Brennan said.

The team’s final report following five years of research included alternative packaging designs to save food. Suggestions included:

  • better date labelling
  • divided portions for bulk food
  • resealable packaging
  • clear communication on how to best avoid bacterial contamination.

Lukas Parker, co-author and RMIT Associate Professor, said some food items, such as meat, have no current suitable alternatives to single-waste plastic that are as effective and practical.

Packaging may be unavoidable in reducing food waste, so the focus should be on balancing how much plastic is used.

“If we forgo the plastic packaging on some items like steak, it can lead to waste because it will impact the steak’s shelf life,” Parker said.

He also said that composting food still counts as food waste because a lot of energy and resources are needed to grow, process, transport and package the food.

Though over 60% of global food waste came from households, the blame shouldn’t entirely be on end users.

The research found that most Australian household food waste was the result of unsuitable packaging sizes, poor purchasing habits, date label confusion, poor food storage knowledge and behaviours. This could be improved if packaging was designed better with clearer instructions on how to best portion out or store food.

Bulk-buying practices also contribute to food waste, especially in households trying to save money. This tends to lead to portion sizes too big for household needs.

“It leads to more food waste because people get bored of eating the same food every day, and if it has insufficient instructions on storage or resealing, it will lead to food going off faster,” Parker said.

Brennan acknowledged it would be expensive for industry to adopt all of the suggestions and recommendations as new machinery, processes and materials would be needed.

According to Brennan, the government should create public policy to help industry waste less and design packaging to save food, rather than rely on education campaigns.

“Even policy guidelines around suitable portion sizes for households, or banning non-resealable packaging on perishable foods, could begin to help make change,” Brennan said.

The team will start a project funded by the Fight Food Waste CRC to review and overhaul date labelling and storage instructions on food packaging. Current ‘best before’ dates on packaging are a measure of quality, not safety, which may lead to end users disposing of foods that are still safe to eat despite the date having passed.

The team hope to advise on a national approach to improve date labelling conventions to help avoid confusion.

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