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How could packaging help reduce food waste?

6th October 2017

The previous two posts in this blog series have drawn attention to what food waste actually is, and considered why it’s a problem. One reason food waste is concerning is due to resource wastage, not just of food itself but of agricultural and financial resources which are used to produce and purchase food. This post considers the role of packaging in reducing food waste.

Packaging already plays a key role in reducing food waste, some of which is quite subtle. Canning as a method of food preservation was pioneered by French confectioner and chef Nicolas Appert in the late 18th century. Appert identified the presence of air as a cause of food deterioration and used glass jars to contain foodstuffs with minimal air. The jars were then sealed and cooked to kill bacteria. In 1810, Peter Durand patented his own method of food preservation using a tin can rather than a glass bottle. Today’s food waste issues may be beyond what a humble tin can is able to solve, but the success and ubiquity of canning highlights the role packaging can play.

Canning enables long term storage of food, yet much wasted food is that which is intended to be eaten within a short time frame. The pantomime villain foodstuff of this is the bagged salad. As identified by Appert, air is an issue for fresh produce, and it remains a problem today. One solution is to use modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) in which the air in a packet is replaced with a protective gas mix. This slows food deterioration, thus extending shelf life and, in theory, reducing food waste. MAP is not new technology, but current research aims to produce packaging which is able to respond flexibly to the changing properties of a product as it ripens and develops.Canned produce

MAP is concerned with extending shelf life, yet packaging is also useful in protecting food before they reach the retailer and consumer. The shift from glass to plastic milk bottles demonstrates this in some ways. Glass milk bottles, although holding certain aesthetic advantages, cannot be resealed and if dropped lead to a large mess and the wasting of their contents. In contrast, plastic milk bottles can be resealed and have the flexibility to absorb large impacts and prevent spillages. Similarly, sturdy transit packaging has the potential to improve the protection of food during transport and reduce losses from damage.

Packaging cannot prevent all food waste, however. By UK law, pre-packed foods are required to show a “use-by” or “best before” date, and packaging often contains information regarding food storage. Despite the information provided on labels, food may remain uneaten by these dates and deteriorate to the point of being inedible. There is some indication that simplifying this labelling will help reduce consumer food wastage, but it would not remove the problem entirely. Clearly food waste is a complex issue, and the final post in this blog series considers this complexity.