How packaging can reduce food waste

Wednesday, 26 June, 2013

Packaging plays a vital role in the food industry and now new Australian research has established how this role can be extended to assist in minimising food waste.

In Australia, over 4.2 million tonnes of food waste is disposed to landfill each year. Around 1.5 million tonnes of this is from the commercial and industrial sector and is worth about $10.5 billion in waste disposal costs and product value.

Reasons for food waste

  • Post-harvest - not meeting specifications for quality and/or appearance.
  • Processing and packaging - inadequate remaining shelf life.
  • Distribution (wholesale and retail) - damage in transit/storage due to packaging failures.
  • Distribution - product spoilage.
  • Food service - confusion over best-before dates.

CHEP Australia commissioned RMIT University’s Centre for Design to investigate where - and why - food waste occurs along both the fresh and manufactured food supply chain. RMIT Senior Research Fellow Dr Karli Verghese led the research study, titled The role of packaging in minimising food waste in the supply chain of the future.

The study addresses a knowledge gap identified by the Australian Food and Grocery Council’s Future of Packaging white paper (RMIT University, April 2012) regarding understanding food waste to inform product and packaging design and focuses on the commercial and industrial food supply chain.

Dr Verghese said: “Food security is an emerging challenge for both policymakers and companies in the fresh and manufactured food supply chains; however, no significant research had previously been conducted into the role that packaging plays in minimising food waste in Australia.

“Packaging actually plays a critical role in protecting fresh produce and processed food in transit, in storage, at point of sale and prior to consumption. In doing so it helps deliver a wide range of functions while reducing food waste.”

While households are the largest generator of food waste to landfill (2.7 million tonnes each year), the report shows that in the commercial and industrial sector the largest generators are food services (661,000 tonnes), followed by food manufacturing (312,000 tonnes), retailing (179,000 tonnes) and wholesale distribution (83,000 tonnes). However, food waste recovery rates are extremely high in the manufacturing sector, with 90% of waste repurposed.

Opportunities to reduce food waste

  • Distribution packaging that provides better protection and shelf life for fresh produce as it moves from farm to processor.
  • Adoption of new packaging materials and technology to extend shelf life of fresh and processed food.
  • Improved design of secondary packaging to ensure it is fit for purpose and protects the food through the supply chain.
  • Increased use of retail-ready packaging to reduce double handling and damage, and improve turnover.
  • Education about the meaning of use-by and best-before date marks on primary packaging.

Dr Verghese said: “While some food waste in the supply chain is inevitable - for example, trimmings from fresh produce and preparation waste in manufacturing and food services - other waste is avoidable.

“Our research identified opportunities for improvement where food waste is incurred through things like poor inventory management, overstocking of shelves or product damage during transport and handling.

“There are certainly opportunities to minimise food waste through packaging innovation and design, such as improved ventilation and temperature control for fresh produce, and better understanding the dynamics between different levels of packaging, to ensure they are designed fit for purpose.”

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