General / February 5, 2018
Americans buy a shocking amount of perishable food each year… only to discard nearly half of it. Fresh meat, fish, and poultry, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables are all casualties—primarily from spoilage (two-thirds!), but also from wasted leftovers. Is this merely the effect of an indulgent culture, or are there other factors? Consumer behaviors aside, manufacturers can have a significant impact on waste through packaging that better protects food items and equips buyers to best handle, store, and prepare this incredibly valuable resource.
Most of the efforts to reduce the impact of food waste has gone into reducing packaging, an after-the-fact response that assumes that consumers somehow want to throw things away (or at least that their behavior can’t be changed), so the damage can only be mitigated by putting less packaging waste into the garbage. However, this certainly doesn’t improve the amount of discarded food waste and ignores the fact that consumers don’t inherently want to throw money away by taking their food straight from the refrigerator and into the trash. Consumers have good intentions when they pick up perishable items from the grocery store. But they need some help from manufacturers, in the form of packaging, to make the best use of it.
While it seems like letting perishables spoil is pure carelessness, many of us have been there: “Oops, I meant to cook that,” or “Oops, I got too much of that.” Even worse is buying something that wasn’t stored properly in the store, so it turns bad before its time. “Oops, now I need to throw this away and go back to the store to buy more.” (At this point, “oops” may have turned into a few different choice phrases.)
The “oops” phenomenon isn’t just a matter of waiting too long. Several things conspired to produce this failure:
Sometimes the home cook just misjudges, and food items are wasted. But most consumers have a limited amount of information to work with, and if anything breaks down in the process, it can contribute to waste.
Packaging can help both inform and even tattle. For instance, give specific information about how to store the food item (conditions, timeframe, checking for spoilage, etc.). Update the confusing sell by/use by/best by information so that it is clear, understandable, and supports food usage rather than food discarding and replacement. And consider adding temperature- and moisture-sensing technology to keep shipping companies and grocery stores honest. If produce has been consistently outside the range of acceptable climate conditions, it’s not going to last long even if it does make it off the shelf into someone’s home fridge.
Food spoilage is the largest problem in food waste, but discarded leftovers is also something manufacturers can help address. Many consumers are largely unaware of appropriate portion sizes, and do tend to “eyeball” what they’re cooking. Unfortunately, true to the common phrase, “eyeballs are bigger than stomachs,” and much leftover food will be placed in the fridge to then ultimately end up in the garbage. Proactive manufacturers can use creative packaging and labeling to clarify portion sizes (pre-cooked—which can be very different from cooked), suggested preparation quantities for the number of servings, and suggestions for preparation versus reheating. As culture has shifted over the last several decades from single-income households with a full-time homemaker, to dual-income households and both spouses working long hours, there’s no guarantee that the once conventional wisdom about produce handling and various other kitchen insights has been passed down to the current generation of consumers. More people are learning how to boil an egg from a foodie website than from their parents or grandparents. Food manufacturers can step into that space to provide that information and, in the process, become the authority.
It would seem that one of the most responsible things a manufacturer can do is provide packaging that is biodegradable and/or compostable, so it will break down with discarded food. In some cases, that’s true. And ultimately, sustainable packaging (and environmentally nurturing) is a responsible and consumer-pleasing choice.
However, in the race to find and embrace packaging that by itself has a reduced carbon footprint and environmental impact, many manufacturers have forgotten the impact their product has if people buy it and discard most (if not all) of it rather than consuming it. If your fancy environmentally-friendly packaging doesn’t do its best to prevent spoilage and waste, then you’ve missed the point. The answer isn’t always less packaging material. It’s not always compostable. Sometimes it’s more material. Sometimes it’s recyclability (obviously, it’s still a problem if packaging is adding waste to landfills). If perishables are contained in effective packaging that adds value for the consumer (as in, they actually are able to consumer more, if not most or all, of what they’ve purchased), increases store and home shelf life, and reduces food waste across the nation, then it is a far better option than minimal packaging that allows food to be destroyed before it can nourish.
Further, the movement to reduce packaging has also made it more difficult for smaller households to buy and use perishables simply because bulk has become preferred. A 1- or 2-person household struggles to consume perishables packaged for a crowd. And who can blame small households for not wanting to cook in bulk and eat the same meal for days or weeks on end? Where appropriate, manufacturers who can add portioned packaging—even within larger “bulk” sizes—can win the day with frustrated smaller households.
From the time the customer cuts the package open, a clock is ticking. Except, realistically, it’s been ticking long before the perishables made it home to the refrigerator. The best goal for consumers, manufacturers, and global nutrition is to make food last so that it feeds the belly rather than populates the landfill. Exponentially more resources go to producing and distributing food than what is expended in packaging. So, if responsible and effective packaging can reduce food waste, it’s a major win for everyone… from the manufacturer, to the supply chain, to the person at the dinner table.
Give us a call or reach out to get started on discussing your flexible packaging options.
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