Packaging is not just rubbish! On the contrary! It is an indispensable building block in the fight against food waste. This is proven by the Save Food Initiative, in which more than 1,000 companies from the food industry and retail trade are involved - with fascinating projects at home and abroad.
Two images that have left lasting impressions – here the dead whale washed up on the beach with tons of plastic waste in its stomach, there emaciated children in developing countries, sitting apathetically with empty stomachs and starving. As contrasting as these pictures may be, they all have one thing in common. They could be avoided by using packaging responsibly. In the case of whales, the countermeasures are obvious. Avoid as much plastic waste as possible and increase recycling rates. But what can packaging do to stop hunger? The answer is quite simple – its targeted use can reduce food losses and ensure food security.
And the potential effect is enormous. According to the latest estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), around one third of all food worldwide is lost every year. In figures, this means: around 1.3 billion tonnes, grown on an area larger than China, and around 840 million people suffering from hunger. There are many reasons for this. In industrialised nations foods often do not meet the demands of the trade, or are thrown away by consumers because they have bought too much or misinterpreted the best-before date. In less-developed countries, on the other hand, up to 50 percent of foodstuffs spoil every day before they can be sold, due to a lack of infrastructure and logistics. Just a quarter of the food currently lost or wasted would be enough to feed the starving world population.
Fewer losses instead of more production
An example from Kenya shows how this goal can be achieved. In Kenya, 300,000 of the 550,000 tonnes of mangoes grown do not make it to the market at all. “Only 2 percent are exported, and 5 percent are processed. The rest is picked fresh, spoils on the tree, or goes bad during storage or transport due to a lack of a cold chain,” explains Sonja Mattfeld. She is a partner in Africon GmbH in Düsseldorf, a company that specialises in advising on market strategies in Africa and is a member of the Save Food Initiative.
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This situation was reason enough for the Save Food Initiative to support a small local company that dries local products using simple methods and thus makes them durable. Through the targeted use of efficient storage facilities, as well as processing and packaging technologies, the “Mango Project” has helped to reduce food waste in Kenya by 10 percent within two years. A project typical of the Initiative launched in 2011. The cooperation between Messe Düsseldorf, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has set itself the goal of developing solutions along the value chain to combat food losses and waste. The Initiative is supported by over 1,000 members from industry, politics and civil society, including well-known corporations and industry associations, as well as research institutions and non-governmental organisations from the food sector. They have networked to develop interdisciplinary models with a holistic approach.
In this context, the role of packaging was also examined. Result – the frequently propagated slogan “packaging is rubbish” is not correct. After all, intelligent packaging systems fulfil important functions along the production and trade chain. They afford protection against pest infestation and transport damage, safeguard freshness, storage capability and shelf life, as well as consumer information and hygienic handling. The representatives of the Save Food Initiative know that packaging is not a panacea. “The more the better” does not apply, but “the less the better” is not always true either. If a foodstuff is not sufficiently protected and spoils, more production resources have been wasted than would ever have been the case for suitable packaging. From the point of view of sustainability, in such a case the balance therefore tips in favour of packaging.
The opposite is the case in supermarkets when the bananas are first peeled and then packaged in plastic. After all, nature has already come up with some very good packaging ideas itself. Katharina Istel, Sustainable Consumption Officer at the NGO Naturschutzbund Deutschland, therefore advocates using packaging material in a calculated manner and only to the extent necessary: “The fact that packaging is not the only thing that counts in food waste is demonstrated by the fact that we pack incredibly strongly and still throw away so much food. The Nature Conservation Association’s criticism in this context is also directed against the convenient “to-go culture”, which has led to a real boom in disposable packaging.
Retailers take action
Retailers do not want to bear the blame for this. As a member of the Save Food Initiative, Lidl Deutschland for example attaches great importance to avoiding food waste. The sustainable use of resources is supported by an efficient merchandise management system, the freshness concept – products are offered at a reduced price before reaching their sell-by date – and support for food banks. The goal is to reduce plastic consumption by at least 20 percent by 2025.
Metro also works closely with food banks. In Germany alone, sound-quality foodstuffs worth around EUR 12 million are donated annually. The retail giant is the distribution partner of the Beste-Reste-Box. It was developed by “Zu gut für die Tonne!” (too good for the waste bin), an initiative of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), and makes it possible to take food not consumed in the restaurant with you. In addition, Metro cooperates with “United Against Waste”, an initiative that thinks up practical solutions against food wastage. Canteens and restaurants can use a waste analysis tool to find out where in their operations they are wasting resources. Metro also has the overriding goal of throwing away as little food as possible in its stock provisioning and in its own canteens. And last but not least, this company from Düsseldorf attaches great importance to optimal packaging for its private label products, whereby sustainability aspects play a decisive role. The company plans to replace all PVC packaging components with more environmentally friendly materials by the end of 2018.
Brand-name producers take action
Nestlé is pursuing a similar strategy. The food giant applies the “Food Loss + Waste Protocol”. The aim is to develop a global calculation and reporting standard to test the effectiveness of processes along the supply chain and identify areas requiring improvement. Nestlé’s “Make more of it – Together against Food Waste” campaign, launched in 2017, educates consumers about food waste and provides household tips. To combat ocean pollution, Nestlé is committed to making all packagings recyclable or reusable by 2025. They are to be made of mono-material, printed with light or soot-free inks and have easily removable labels.
Another way to reduce food waste is to ensure good residual emptying and residual sizes of the packaging. Ultimately the size of the package too determines what ends up in the trash. The better the portions match demand and the longer the shelf life, the less likely it is that something will be thrown away. According to experts, more material is admittedly needed for smaller packs, but if food waste is reduced only slightly by this, the overall CO2 load will be lower. And that is more important than ever, because CO2 emissions from “food waste” are currently ranked third behind those from the USA and China.