How packaging contributes to food waste prevention

About 30% of the average European’s carbon footprint is linked to the production and distribution of foodstuffs and nutrition in general. However, many food products spoil without appropriate protection and end up as waste. In Europe alone, 100m t per year is estimated to be thrown away. The role plastic or other packaging can play in significantly reducing food waste is the subject of the new study “How Packaging Contributes to Food Waste Prevention" by Austrian think-tank Denkstatt (Vienna; compiled in cooperation with project partners from along the value chain. Participants included Altstoff Recycling Austria (ARA, Vienna;, food retailers Rewe, Hofer and Lidl, packaging producers Südpack and Sealed Air and the Austrian subgroup of the plastics manufacturers association PlasticsEurope Austria.

In a nutshell, the study’s conclusion is: "More packaging, less CO2". This means that despite more packaging being used and disposed of, less food is being wasted, and this leads to a lower carbon footprint overall. In 2014, the Austrian consultancy examined, on the basis of six case studies, how innovative food packaging can impact waste volumes and lessen the food industry’s impact on the environment. The project partners’ common objective was to present facts that would contribute to the discussion of how to further improve food packaging and prevent waste. For example, the use of a plastic tray with a film lid to package sliced cheese might be expected to produce more waste than selling unpackaged cheese at the counter, but in fact the study showed that the retailer’s spoilage rate for packaged cheese is only 0.14% while fresh goods sold unpackaged at the counters generate 5% of waste.

The researchers calculated that producing the packaging generates 28 g of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) while the prevention of spoilt food reduces the CO2 equivalent by 69 g. For example, a pastry that was packaged in plastic film rather than a paper bag with a plastic window would save 12 g CO2e for the packaging and an additional 136 g CO2e in food waste because the retailer’s waste volume dropped from 11% to 0.8%. The same was seen to be true for meat, fruits and vegetables.

In total, Denkstatt says, the carbon footprint of the packaging itself was shown to be smaller by a factor of 10-100 than that of the packaged food. Food packaging therefore creates benefits that exceed the cost of its production and utilisation. However, the researchers note that a lack of quantitative data makes it difficult for this concept to be accepted. The protective function of the food packaging is usually considered to be more important than its impact on the climate, and the recyclability of the packaging.

"As the eco-footprint of the packaging is smaller by far than the environmental imprint of food production, the objective must be to protect foods in the best way possible and to extend their shelf life,” Denkstatt's project leader Harald Pilz said in a detailed presentation at the “Identiplast” trade fair in Rome at the end of April.