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Packaging critical in reducing food waste: study

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article image Food manufacturing is the second largest contributor to the food waste generated by Australia's commercial and industrial sector. Image: lambethenvironment.wordpress.com

Packaging has a vital role to play in minimising food waste in the supply chain, according to new research by RMIT University.

The University's Centre for Design conducted the Australian-first research, commissioned by CHEP Australia , showing where and why food waste occurs along both the fresh and manufactured food supply chain.

The research also proposes opportunities for the food manufacturing industry to address food waste through sustainable primary, secondary and tertiary packaging.

The study, released to industry members and media on 25 June at Sydney's Red Lantern on Riley restaurant, also considers how food waste can and should influence packaging design, and follows on from the AFGC's Future of Packaging whitepaper.

According to Dr Karli Verghese, who led the research study titled The role of packaging in minimising food waste in the supply chain of the future, there has been no other significant research into the role packaging plays in minimising food waste in Australia.

"Packaging actually plays a critical role in protecting fresh produce and processed food in transit, in storage, at point of sale and prior to consumption. In doing so it helps deliver a wide range of functions while reducing food waste."

The report shows that food manufacturing is the second largest contributor to the 1.5m tonnes of food waste generated by Australia's commercial and industrial sector each year, sending 312,000t to landfill. It was trumped only by food services, which contributes 661,000t of waste.

However, food manufacturing recovers the vast majority of its waste, with 90 percent repurposed.

Poor inventory management, overstocking shelves and product damage during transport and handling were all listed as avoidable contributors to food waste in the supply chain. Other contributors are present in agricultural production, including damage from pests and disease; unpredictable weather conditions and produce not meeting quality specifications as well as wastage at home including food preparation waste; food spoilage; preparing too much food; and used-by or best-before dates passing.

In terms of the consumer market, earlier this year a report conducted by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers found that inadequate storage facilities, strict sell-by dates, bulk buying offers and fussy consumers contribute to as much as 50 percent of the world's food ending up as waste.

"There are certainly opportunities to minimise food waste through packaging innovation and design, such as improved ventilation and temperature control for fresh produce, and better understanding the dynamics between different levels of packaging, to ensure they are designed fit-for-purpose," said Verghese.

As part of the study, a number of opportunities to reduce food waste through packaging improvements were identified. These include:

  1. Distribution packaging that provides better protection and shelf life for fresh produce as it moves from the farm to the processor, wholesaler or retailer. This may require the development of tailored solutions for individual products.
  2. Distribution packaging that supports recovery of surplus and unsaleable fresh produce from farms and redirects it to food rescue organisations.
  3. Improved design of secondary packaging to ensure that it is fit-for-purpose, i.e. that it adequately protects food products as they move through the supply chain. Packaging developers need to understand the distribution process and where and why waste occurs.
  4. A continuing shift to pre-packed and processed foods to extend the shelf life of food products and reduce waste in distribution and at the point of consumption (the home or food services provider). The packaging itself also needs to be recoverable to minimise overall environmental impacts.
  5. Adoption of new packaging materials and technologies, such as modified atmosphere packaging and oxygen scavengers, to extend the shelf life of foods.
  6. Education of manufacturers, retailers and consumers about the meaning of use-by and best-before date marks on primary packaging to ensure that these are used appropriately. Confusion about date marking results in food being thrown away when it is still safe to eat.
  7. Product and packaging development to cater for changing consumption patterns and smaller households. Single and smaller serve products will reduce waste by meeting the needs of single and two person households.
  8. Collaboration between manufacturers and retailers to improve the industry’s understanding of food waste in the supply chain. Greater attention to be given to where and why this occurs, tracking over time, will reduce the costs and environmental impacts of waste.
  9. More synchronised supply chains that use intelligent packaging and data sharing to reduce excess or out-of-date stock.
  10. Increased use of retail ready packaging to reduce double handling and damage and improve stock turnover, while ensuring that it is designed for effective product protection and recoverability (reuse or recycling) at end of life.

At the study's release, president of CHEP Australia and NZ, Phillip Austin, said he's pleased to be part of the ongoing conversation on managing Australia's food waste and believes CHEP is a suitable partner for such research.

"Our business model is an inherently sustainable one," Austin said, adding that CHEP's pallet, container and crate pooling services enable common-use, prevent one-way packaging and minimise resources.

Last year, CHEP reduced its absolute carbon dioxide emissions by three percent on the previous year, despite 2012 being a year of growth for the business, and moving forward, Austin says food packaging will be a big focus for all members of the food manufacturing supply chain.

"We understand that we form part of our customers' supply chain," he said. "We want to try to explore what we can do in regards to packaging to help make a difference."

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