How packaging design can reduce food waste

Food is wasted or lost at all stages along the value creation chain, but the main source of food destruction is the consumer household. Inadequate packaging is part of the problem – and therefore part of the solution. 

It is estimated that more than one billion tonnes (metric tons) of food are being thrown away worldwide. That is one third of the total food production. Losses are also incurred in the production and distribution process, but the last link in the supply chain plays a key role – especially in the wealthy industrialised countries. In other words: the richer a country, the more food its citizens throw away.

Waste is difficult to measure. However, a study by the University of Stuttgart, which was presented in 2019, meticulously evaluates the available waste statistics using specific coefficients on the proportion of food in the waste streams for the year 2015. The result: German households produce almost seven million tonnes of food waste per year. Private households are thus responsible for more than half of the total food waste of 12.7 million tonnes. Agriculture accounts for 1.4 million tonnes, food processing for 2.2 million tonnes, the retail trade for 0.5 million tonnes and out-of-home consumption for 1.7 million tonnes.

Almost half of private food waste could be avoided

Every German throws away about 85 kilograms of food a year, of which, according to the authors of the study 37 kilograms are theoretically avoidable. Packaging could play an important role here. Although the reasons for the high quantities of private food waste are many and varied – lack of shopping planning, stressful everyday life with irregular meals, lack of overview of refrigerator contents and stocks, incorrect storage, etc. – the type of packaging also plays a contributory role.

For example, large package sizes often mean more content than single or two-person households can consume. In addition, many food packages are not resealable or become torn open over a large area when first opened, so that the contents are no longer adequately protected against light and oxygen.

Protecting products from spoilage, informing consumers better

Another problem is packaging that is difficult to empty or that is lightweight but can easily be damaged during transport home. A lack of storage instructions on packaging can lead to consumers storing the food too warm or too cold and the contents having to be disposed of ahead of time. Finally, unclear date information (date of production/use-by date) often leads consumers to dispose of a product unnecessarily.

So the good news is that there are plenty of adjustment options. The Swedish packaging specialist and management consultant Felix Helander estimates that up to 25 percent of food waste in private households could be avoided with better packaging.

Packaging can thus make a significant contribution to achieving the United Nations target of halving per capita food waste at retail level and among consumers by 2030.

Packaging must be better adapted to demand and content

The packaging industry must offer solutions that are better or more closely tailored to actual needs, and manufacturers and retailers must use them. This includes:

  • resealable packaging (screw cap, zipper or self-adhesive film packaging, for example for self-service sausage and cheese)
  • ease of emptying (either via instructions on the package or via packaging characteristics such as foldability)
  • packaging in a modified atmosphere to extend the shelf-life of the product
  • use of barrier materials/films which are impermeable to light and oxygen
  • smaller packaging sizes
  • clear instructions on the appropriate storage and shelf-life of the product
  • in future, intelligent product labels that record time and temperature and indicate the ripeness and freshness of fruit and vegetables, meat and fish

Conflicts with other ecological objectives

Individual points may conflict with other ecological objectives. For example, the use of barrier films means that packaging is difficult to recycle. The reduction of package sizes also initially runs counter to the goal of waste avoidance. Here, however, the conflict can be solved if manufacturers continue to offer a product in larger units. On the one hand, this ensures that small households do not buy more product than they can consume, while large families do not have to buy three individual packs with corresponding packaging waste.

However, the conflict between reduced packaging and better shelf life cannot always be resolved so clearly. A classic example of this is cucumber – without shrink film it has a shelf life of around three days, with shrink film it can be kept for up to 14 days. Here producers and retailers must take decisions from case to case