5 Takeaways of Packaging that Wastes Less Food

What we learned from 10 sessions and 24 experts in our Food Waste Repackaged Learning Series.

In May and June of 2021, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and its partners hosted a Food Waste Repackaged Learning Series to explore the important role packaging design and innovation plays in preventing food waste. Here’s what we learned:  

1. Packaging can be a key solution to food waste 

As one of the leading experts on the food waste problem in the US, ReFED’s Executive Director, Dana Gunders, set the stage with new data on both the challenge and the solutions. Through ReFED’s Insights Engine, we learned that food waste happens predominantly in consumer-facing businesses and in consumers’ homes, and that produce, prepared foods, dairy, and eggs are some of the most commonly wasted foods. 

The good news is that package design as well as active and intelligent packaging are in the top 12 solutions for preventing the climate change associated with food waste. Solutions that are closely linked to packaging, such as meal kits, consumer education campaigns, and standardized date labeling, are also key strategies. For example, packaging can be used to tackle specific causes of food waste in the home – like portions that are currently more than one person wants to eat, or foods that are difficult to store once opened.

2. The right design is everything 

Clearly, packaging can be one of the main solutions to preventing consumer-based food waste. Dr. Claire Sand, founder of Packaging Technology and Research, and Dr. Dawn Jutla, founder and president of Peer Ledger, covered specific opportunities like moisture absorbers and blockchain technologies that can be used to improve the performance of packaging. Many of these technologies are on the market today but aren’t yet being used to their full potential by brands and manufacturers, in part due to the upfront cost of implementation. 

Redesigning the most common packaging formats with simple tweaks could have a big impact. Joachim Kircher of Denkstatt, a European consultancy, reviewed LCA research demonstrating that small changes to packaging – for example, adding microperforation or individual portions – can have a big effect on the package’s ability to extend shelf life or store food properly in consumers’ homes. 

To help brands do this, the Australian Institute of Packaging has issued a set of guidelines called Save Food Packaging. Nerida Kelton, Executive Director of the Australian Packaging Institute, shared the high-level principles behind the guidelines, as well as examples of award-winning packages from around the world that have been designed with food waste prevention in mind.

3. Consumer food waste is everyone’s problem 

The true cost of food waste is spread across the supply chain, not just downstream with consumers. Our panel of entrepreneurs in the Entrepreneurial Landscape of Food Packaging Innovations session discussed the importance of focusing on the top line, rather than the bottom line by addressing food waste with new innovations to create opportunities to extend a growing season, sell food that was sourced from further away, or bring more value to consumers. 

During the Saving Food through Collaboration session, panelists from leading NGOs, CEO-led initiatives, retailer collaborations, and financial services echoed the importance of looking across the supply chain to address food waste. Strategies like dynamic pricing and artificial intelligence are projected to help reduce surplus and support better consumer behavior in stores as well as in homes. One example of this was to have the consumer scan packages with a smartphone to make more informed purchase decisions. 

4. Investment need to focus on systems solutions  

Because food waste is a wide-reaching problem, it can feel daunting to address it. During the Innovations in Food Waste Prevention session, panelists with investment, consulting, and research backgrounds shared how they’re working to define and scale a range of food waste solutions, such as active packaging technologies. Ultimately, the problem will require brands to share the costs, educate consumers, and pursue solutions on a systems scale. 

What do these systems-level solutions look like? The Head of Sustainability at Pearlfisher, Brandi Parker, explored the history of packaging and how we’ve created solutions to immediate food problems, like storage and convenience, while creating future problems like plastic pollution. Going forward, we might consider moving food production closer to where people live, or openly addressing societal standards of perfection that cause us to throw away perfectly good produce simply because of cosmetic flaws. 

5. Give consumers the information they need – and make it fun

Consumers don’t want to throw away food – they want to get more value from the products they buy, but often aren’t sure how to do this. WRAP’s Helen White shared category-specific messaging and iconography that brands can add to their packaging to give consumers more information and options. The example she gave was a refrigerator logo to encourage consumers to store the product in the fridge at the suggested temperature, or instructions on how to freeze an unused portion of the product.  

As highlighted in our final session with Chef Joel Gamoran, there is an incredible opportunity for brands to take responsibility for waste and partner with consumers in the fight against food waste, leading with simple benefits like cost savings or more flavor. Packaging can educate consumers with QR codes and recipe tips, or be designed to serve multiple functions, like a clamshell that doubles as a strainer or a storage container. 

Over the course of ten sessions, the Learning Series showcased global perspectives and leading research into the food waste problem. With these insights and innovations now in one place, we hope you’ll be inspired to learn how to design packaging to help prevent food waste across the supply chain. If you missed any of these sessions, they are available on-demand here: LINK.

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