May/June 2022

Column: Food waste reduction necessary on multiple fronts
By Maria Ferrante, PMMI

Reducing food waste can cut greenhouse gas emissions, feed the hungry and save billions of dollars. 

In 2015, the U.S. set a goal to cut food loss and waste by 50% by 2030. Consumers acknowledge the problem and include food waste in their growing concerns about the environmental impact of the supply chain, according to “What’s Next: Food and Beverage Trends Impact Industry Growth,” an infographic published by PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, and producer of the PACK EXPO portfolio of trade shows. 

A report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — “From Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste, Part 1” — estimates about 35% of the food produced in the U.S. is wasted at a cost of $408 billion annually. A 50% reduction in food loss and waste would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 24% between 2020 and 2100 and could help feed more than 150 million people annually, including all food-insecure Americans (an estimated 35 million). Decreasing food waste also would minimize the need for new food production operations and lessen deforestation, biodiversity loss, water pollution and water scarcity. 

Food waste occurs at every level of the supply chain from farm to kitchen, and the impact increases as food moves toward the consumption stage. Homes account for 37% of food waste, more than any other part of the supply chain, according to “Roadmap to 2030,” a report published by ReFED, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste. Consumer-facing businesses (i.e., retailers, restaurants, and foodservice operations) rank second at 28%, followed by farms at 21% and manufacturing at 14%. 

For fresh produce, shelf life often is measured in days. Minimizing produce waste depends on timely harvesting; optimum handling, sorting and grading; and quick delivery for processing or sale. Sorting and grading are particularly important so produce is efficiently transported to processors and retailers or diverted to secondary uses like animal feed. 

Maximum shelf life and product quality depend on proper control of temperature and atmosphere. Temperature control must carefully balance being cold enough to retard spoilage but not so cold that the product freezes or its quality is negatively affected. Sensor-equipped packaging can provide an alert if temperature parameters are exceeded, or a shipment is delayed. With a real-time alert, action can be taken to divert the shipment before it spoils and must be disposed of in a landfill or incinerator.

Active packaging components like sorbent packets slow ripening and spoilage, often by controlling ethylene levels. Perforated films and films with permeability tailored to the product’s respiration rate also can help maintain freshness. New plant-based coatings extend shelf life by sealing in moisture and serving as a barrier to oxygen.  

Other packaging design improvements support food waste reduction efforts, according to ReFED’s “Roadmap to 2030.” This includes creating designs that are compatible with both foodservice and retail supply chains, reducing household waste through smaller sizes, incorporating resealable features, and improving instructions for use. Date labeling should be standardized and extend dates as far out as possible to prevent premature disposal of the product. Education is needed so consumers understand produce often is edible even if it doesn’t look perfect.  

In addition, attention should be devoted to avoiding over-production, expediting time to market, monitoring the remaining shelf life of products on retail shelves, and taking steps to quickly sell or donate produce approaching the end of its shelf life. Greater digitalization of the supply chain can support these tactics, according to researchers at Lund University in Sweden. It also opens doors to closer communication with consumers by providing real-time data about when and where the produce was harvested. 

It is more important than ever that the packaging and processing industries come together to share insights and innovations, and the best place to do that is PACK EXPO International (Oct. 23-26; McCormick Place, Chicago). From connecting with colleagues and hearing from experts to seeing new technologies, materials, and machinery in action, PACK EXPO is the most efficient and effective way to discover packaging and processing solutions for over 40 vertical markets. For more information and to register, visit packexpointernational.com.

— Maria Ferrante is Senior Director, Marketing and Communications for PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies and the producer of the PACK EXPO Portfolio of trade shows. Ferrante is an award-winning writer/editor who has been covering the packaging industry for over 25 years.


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