The role of packaging in reducing national food waste figures

According to a recent study by Bosch, the UK ranks 18th highest in the world for food waste arising from households. The analysis, which uses data from the UNEP Food Waste Index Report found that, while one of the smallest countries in the world, Britain is also one of the most wasteful.

Producing more than five million tonnes of food waste per annum (77kg per capita), we throw away nearly twice as much as the average Slovenian (34kg per capita) and nearly a third more than the average US resident (58.83kg per capita) – a far cry from our vision as one of the world’s most sustainability-conscious geographies.

While damning, the report highlights two important things. Firstly, our national consideration towards food waste must change. Secondly, progress is clearly possible (as shown by the sustainable-savvy Slovenians), but education is imperative.

The fact of the matter is simple. If we were to cut our household food waste by half, reflecting the world’s most considerate counties, we could prevent nearly 2.5 million tonnes of food waste from ending up in landfill. What’s more, we could reduce our carbon footprint, prevent the release of harmful greenhouse gases and save a huge amount of money.

The important question, therefore, is how do we do it? While there’s no silver bullet solution, it’s a case of minimising waste arising in the first place (using leftovers, freezing produce before it reaches its use-by date, better meal planning, etc.), appreciating and avoiding the major causes of unnecessary food waste (bulk purchase deals, over-buying, etc.), and finding ways to redistribute what you can’t use (community kitchens, donation points, etc.).

But while householders clearly have a major role to play in waste management, producers and the wider supply chain continue to innovate, embracing new and improved solutions to make it easier to achieve food waste reductions. One primary area of focus is food product packaging. Whether extending shelf life, preventing spoilage or simply improving customer confidence in freshness, the next-generation of packaging solutions are making a real difference.

– Intelligent packaging – Discarding perfectly edible food, due to misleading ‘best before’ dates, is surprisingly common. Intelligent packaging uses a small patch of smart plastic to show consumers how long packaging has been open. This encourages the consumer to only discard food that is unsafe to eat, rather than base freshness on guesswork.

– Snap-packs – With more single-person households than ever before, ‘family size’ perishable items are a key makeup of unnecessary waste. Snap-packs consist of single-person portions, individually split and packaged into larger quantities. Consumers can open the desired volume of product, leaving the remainder enclosed in sealed packaging. A simple idea, but one that has already proven instrumental in reducing waste.

– Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) – MAP seals food together with specific concentrations of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. This unique blend of gases – which is altered depending on the specific type of fresh food enclosed – preserves colour and taste, as well as increasing product shelf life.

– Active packaging – Active packaging preserves food by adding certain chemicals to the packaging itself, which makes the environment less attractive for bacteria to grow. The addition of iron oxide, for example, reduces oxygen levels inside the packaging to increase shelf life.

– Resealable packaging – Practical rather than scientific, using resealable packaging helps to further increase product shelf life once a product is opened. An air-tight seal helps to maintain freshness, prevent products from going stale and gives consumers the confidence to use food for longer.

These practical packaging solutions are working in conjunction with behavioural change programmes to support the significant food waste reductions required by government-driven targets. It demonstrates how collaboration between end users and the supply chain can make great strides when it comes to sustainability.

Recycling: the next step

But while impressive work is being done to reduce household food waste, it is still the single greatest domestic contributor to the UK’s escalating waste mountain. The unfortunate reality is that, even with the best minimisation practices, there will always be a percentage of waste that simply cannot be eliminated.

This is the ‘unavoidable’ fraction that is deemed unsuitable for human or animal consumption – produce that has passed its sell-by date, for example. In the past, the UK has relied heavily on landfill as a common disposal solution, but times are changing.

Landfilling food waste results in a number of highly damaging environmental consequences. Indeed, rotting food releases greenhouse gases considered 21 times more damaging to the environment than CO2. What’s more, with every tonne of general waste stung by landfill tax charges (which have already increased by £2.55 per tonne year-on-year), food waste costs the public purse millions (if not billions) of pounds every year.

As such, in 2023, legislation will come into force mandating the roll-out of separate household food waste collections. This move will see food waste independently collected from all households, businesses and organisations across England. Defra will work closely with local authorities to introduce these changes, creating a framework which will help to identify where extra support is needed.

This legislation will prove a massive step forward in the war on waste, with 1.35m tonnes per annum set to be collected by 2029 – expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 1.25 million tonnes every year.

But what will happen to this food waste? Well, using anaerobic digestion (AD), it will mostly be recycled to generate valuable resources – a safe, secure, closed-loop solution. The simple process sees organic matter broken down in the absence of oxygen to release biogas.

This gas can either be combusted to generate renewable power, or cleaned, upgraded and injected directly into the National Gas Grid. Nothing is wasted during the process, with the resulting digestate offering value to local farmers as a sustainable liquid biofertiliser.

ReFood operates three state-of-the-art food waste recycling facilities in Widnes, Doncaster and Dagenham. Every year, we collect more than 400,000 tonnes of food waste and generate enough renewable power to run 55,000 homes in result. Our operations give unavoidable food waste another purpose – a completely circular solution.

To achieve a measurable national reduction in food waste, we need to tackle it from both directions. We need innovation from across the supply chain and education directly to householders (to prevent waste from arising in the first place), alongside commitment and robust systems in place to manage the unavoidable fraction.

Working together, this will help to prevent the unnecessary landfilling of food waste – it’s a dated and inefficient solution – and one that we must move on from.

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