OPINION: Food waste and packaging: Some considerations

Nicola Jenkin, Pinpoint and Lorren de Kock, WWF-South Africa

Originally published on News24, 5th September 2020, click here.

The topics of single-use plastic and excess packaging have covered many press inches over recent years. While South African’s use about 3.5 million tonnes of packaging each year and almost 50% of it is collected for recycling, we certainly could do with reducing it – whether as manufacturers, retailers and consumers. It is widely recognised that single-use plastic harms our landscapes, fresh water catchments, oceans and the animals that live in it, and because of this, calls have been made to ban it, or to adopt plastic free months. These are all laudable actions – however before bans are put into place or packaging is removed for good, it is important to consider what might happen if we did follow these through, for example will it mean we produce more food waste?

South African’s throw away about 12 million tonnes of food waste a year. This figure is concerning in a country where an estimated 13 million people routinely experience hunger, and more than half of all households rely on social assistance. This is likely to be exacerbated with the Covid-19 pandemic. If removing packaging means an increase in food waste, this does not bode well. For this reason, a word of caution is necessary for policy makers, pressure groups, food manufacturers and retailers considering decisions to inform policy or call for packaging bans.

Our food system involves a complex network of stages including harvesting, packing, transporting, processing (often multiple stages), retail, storage, consumption, redistribution and disposal. Within this system, packaging plays a significant role in protecting products on this journey and keeping it fresh and safe. However, our food system and behaviours also result in food waste because of poor planning, damage, buying too much or not storing it properly. Because of this, the relationship between food waste and packaging needs to be better understood to make informed decisions, so as not to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’. 

According to a study undertaken in Scotland, the carbon impact of food waste collected from Scottish homes is nearly three times that of the plastic they throw away. Research carried out in the States, suggests that the carbon impact of a cucumber is 178 times higher than its plastic sleeve, and for beef 370 times more than its packaging. Similar evidence was found in a recent life cycle assessment undertaken by The Green House for WWF/Woolworths on cucumbers and raspberries and their associated plastic packaging. This study highlighted, for example, that the plastic wrapping on a cucumber is insignificant in comparison to the impact of the cucumber itself. While these studies suggest the food contained in the packaging has a higher environmental impact than the packaging it comes in, the story is not that simple. For some products, such as unsweetened soft drinks, the results may be reversed. Also, many of these studies do not capture the biodiversity and human health impacts associated with plastic pollution. As the picture is not as simple as one would like, the need to make informed decisions about packaging and food waste is even greater. As a guide, we’ve pulled together a set of Top 4 considerations to help:·   

1. How to reduce the impact of food packaging

While the data suggests that the ratio of impact between food and packaging is weighted towards the food contained within, the packaging should be designed as optimally as possible. Consider how to reduce the impact of the packaging, for example, reducing the amount of packaging by exploring alternative delivery models. Also ensure it is designed to be recycled in our recycling system or disposed of correctly when consumed on the go or at home. A way to do this is to ensure On-pack Recycling Labels are correctly displayed on the packaging so consumers know whether it can be recycled. This is particularly the case for consumers, as the WWF/Woolworths study on cucumbers and raspberries indicates that most plastic generated on farm is recycled or reused but is less so in the home.

2. Understanding the alternatives

When it comes to sourcing the information to inform your decision on which packaging to choose, check to see who the authors are – are they neutral and reputable, or biased towards their material? Also consider whether the alternative material has similar performance and the switch does not lead to unintended consequences, for example, while paper bags are likely to biodegrade, tree plantations and the manufacturing of the bags requires significant amounts of water. While glass is great as it can be recycled infinitely, it is also heavy and when transported in bulk can increase fuel costs. We are also running out of sand to make glass, therefore recycling glass is important.   

3. Does the packaging extend shelf-life?

If properly used, packaging can make food last longer and prevent it from going to waste. Studies show that advanced packaging can keep food fresher and make it last significantly longer. For example, switching from plastic wrap to micro-perforated film can extend the life of broccoli from 6 to 20 days. However, for these benefits to be realised, consumers need to know how best to use or store the product, otherwise these technologies can have little effect, and food waste is still likely. For example, many fruits and vegetables, such as cucumbers, are likely to last longer if not refrigerated.·        

4. Does selling produce loose increase food waste?

Consumers are sensitive about over packaged food, especially fruit and vegetables. An American study found that 90% of consumers think packaging is worse for the environment than food waste and so prefer to buy loose. Loose is also often considered to be fresher and more nutritious. While selling produce loose certainly reduces packaging, it is likely to result in higher food waste as it is more susceptible to being dropped or prodded and bruised. Consumers also seek out ‘the cream of the crop’, leaving behind so-called imperfect produce. This unselected and bruised produce can result in food waste. To reduce loose produce food waste, consumers should be discouraged from being heavy-handed with fruit and vegetables and encouraged to purchase ‘ugly’ produce.  

If it is decided that packaging should stay, consumers need to be made aware of why and how to get the best benefit out the packaging to reduce food waste in the home. That said, it is also imperative that brand owners and retailers design optimal packaging, that contains as much recycled content as is technically and economically feasible, and is designed to be recycled or reused infinitely, but yet fit-for-purpose.

Jenkin, of Pinpoint Sustainability, was commissioned to develop a briefing paper on food waste and packaging by the World Wide Fund for Nature; and De Kock, is Project Manager for the Circular Plastics Economy programme, of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).