How manufacturers can tackle food waste

Reducing food wastage is high on the list when it comes to increasing sustainability in the food industry. A 2011 report by WRAP, who campaign for the sustainable use of resources, shows that UK households’ drink and food waste was estimated to be around 7.2 million tonnes annually.

Whilst this number is high, food wastage has fallen by 1.1 million tonnes (13%) since 2008, an amount that could easily fill Wembley Stadium. This reduction in food waste is in part due to the food industry reacting to the issue and creating innovative packaging by optimising pack sizes and maximising shelf life.

We take a look at why we still need to reduce food waste, and investigate the ways that packaging can prevent food waste in transport and storage.

Preventing food waste

"This reduction in food waste is in part due to the food industry reacting to the issue and creating innovative packaging by optimising pack sizes and maximising shelf life."

According to WRAP, around 60% of the food thrown away every year did not need to be disposed of and could have been used. Preventing food waste could save the average family around £800 a year and would also have significant environmental benefits, including a reduction in landfill and mitigating climate change. Preventing food waste can also be beneficial to the economy, as research by Defra shows that UK businesses can save up to £23bn through low-cost improvements in the efficient use of resources.

Food waste has fallen thanks to a myriad of techniques, including high profile campaigns, new processing techniques and innovative packaging concepts. According to Mario Abreu, director of sustainable resources and recycling at Tetra Pak, recent figures suggest that global food waste could be as much as half of the food produced.

Abreu states that the biggest source of food waste is households (42%) and believes that "informing and empowering them to make good decisions about food purchases will be key to reducing food waste".
He suggests that "rather than only looking ‘inside our gates’", companies should look upstream and downstream, and push for improvements throughout the value chain.

He continues: "This involves working with suppliers, transporters, customers, retailers, consumers, recyclers and waste managers, amongst others, to reduce the overall environmental impact."

Abreu states that consumers need better access to recycling units so they can fulfil their good intentions to recycle. Manufacturers need to improve consumer engagement with recycling and also making more informed choices about food packaging.

Fresher food for longer

There are numerous innovations in packaging that are helping to reduce the level of food waste. Dr Karli Verghese, an RMIT University senior research fellow, led a recent study entitled ‘The role of packaging in minimising food waste in the supply chain of the future’, which investigated where food waste occurs along the fresh and manufactured food supply chain.

"Recent figures suggest that global food waste could be as much as half of the food produced."

The right packaging can protect the product inside and delay the natural process of decay for up to two weeks or more. It suits consumer demand to develop packaging that keeps food fresher longer, but it also helps reduce food waste as consumers will have more time to consume the product.

In the report Dr Verghese and her team state: "A fresh produce supplier interviewed for this research noted that plastic film around a bunch of fresh herbs can extend its shelf life from two to five days. The new trend to pack fresh herbs in punnets doubles this again."

In March 2013, WRAP commissioned a report that urged consumers to keep food products in their original packaging, stating that doing so could keep the product fresher for up to a fortnight. Considering most food packaging is designed to keep food fresher for longer this is a sensible move by WRAP but not one that all consumers will necessarily take.

Dr Verghese and her team also found that food waste is incurred through overstocking shelves, poor inventory management and product damage during transport. This leads to opportunities for manufacturers to look at their supply chain and fix any issues that could result in food wastage.

Tetra Pak has a history of utilising packaging to reduce food waste, pioneering the development of aseptic sterilisation to enable food products to be kept fresh for up to six months without the need for added preservatives of refrigeration. Today they continue their commitment to food safety and innovation.

"We are constantly innovating in order to improve the shelf life of food and beverages produced by our customers’," says Abreu."Sometimes the solutions involve creating new options for extended life items, such as the Tetra Recart system that brings the aseptic carton to canned foods.

"The carton offers the same food waste sparing properties of cans along with weight savings and use of renewable materials that reduce the overall CO2 footprint."

Packaging food for a changing society

"While two for one offers and bulk retailing may provide better value for money for consumers, if they are in a small household it is likely that the product will lose its freshness and probably degrade before the consumer can finish it."

The way we live as a society has a drastic effect on the way we eat and why we waste food. Today social and lifestyle changes have led to an increase in single or two person households and an ageing population, which in turn have led to a consumer trend for conveniently packaged food and drink.

While two for one offers and bulk retailing may provide better value for money for consumers, if they are in a small household it is likely that the product will lose its freshness and probably degrade before the consumer can finish it.

Dr Verghese’s report stated: "Single occupancy households tend to waste around 45% more food per person than the average household, so there is clearly an opportunity for food manufacturers to cater for this group by providing smaller serving sizes or resealable packaging."

Various reactions to this recent consumer trend have included single-serve packaging that contains the right amount for only one consumer, reclosable packs that allow consumers to keep food fresher for longer and sub-divided packs that allow the consumer to take what they need and leave the rest for later.

There are many ways to fight food waste in the industry and to enable consumers to better prevent food waste. While the industry has come a long way, we can only hope that new innovations and campaigns can take us that little bit further.