How to Design Packaging to Prevent Food Waste

How to Design Packaging to Prevent Food Waste

Written by: Minerva Ringland

June 3, 2022

We often ask if our food packaging is recyclable, but why don’t we ask if it’s contributing to food waste? Packaging plays an important role in protecting food until it reaches the consumer, but it can also reduce food waste at home by serving as a storage container, making contents easy to access, and communicating how to cook with the product. At the same time, packaging can make it difficult to access content (like condiments), become damaged or fail in ways that cause food to spoil, or lead someone to buy more than they need – all of which can lead to food waste. Beyond that, packaging materials themselves often become waste, contributing up to 28% of what ends up in landfills.

An analysis by ReFED indicates that improving package design could divert more than one million tons of food waste and avoid six million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year. Solutions in this area would also have a net financial benefit of $4.13 billion. However, until now, manufacturers and retailers may have struggled to understand exactly how to pursue these changes.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) has just released a new guide, titled “Best Practices for Designing Packaging to Prevent and Reduce Food Waste.” The guide pushes back on the idea that packaging sustainability and food waste prevention are competing goals, and it challenges companies to be truly innovative by tackling the two problems in tandem. It also presents specific design strategies like resealability, new portion/pack sizes, and active/intelligent packaging. These may seem basic, but they require the company to think beyond merely getting the product to a consumer, and instead embrace the growing movement among businesses toward taking responsibility for consumers’ climate impacts from downstream food waste. 

The SPC guide also points out areas where companies may need to navigate tradeoffs between packaging sustainability and food waste. On average, only 3-3.5% of the climate impact of packaged food comes from the packaging itself – the rest comes from producing, transporting, storing, preparing, and potentially disposing of the food. This proportion can be significantly higher for certain kinds of foods and formats, but ultimately, packaging “pays off” if it helps to reduce waste of the food it contains by at least 4%. This means that even when packaging creates climate impact, companies should prioritize strategies that reduce food waste. 

A number of these strategies are most effective when companies have a strong understanding of how their consumers interact with food in the home. When considering portion or pack sizes, the SPC particularly recommends consideration of consumer preferences. The tradeoff between food waste and packaging material is quite direct, so the decision to use more material should be based on research that clearly demonstrates how smaller or larger portions lead to less food waste. Other strategies require designers to consider consumer psychology as well as the physics and logistics of home food storage. Packaging that improves visibility should be considered carefully – it could prevent food waste by allowing consumers to determine freshness or use up what they see is left in a container, but it could actually cause food waste if light exposure hastens spoilage or if it reveals something unappetizing (like natural separation in a salad dressing). 

Alongside designing out waste, there is ample opportunity for the packaging itself to be made more recyclable. The SPC’s guide warns that package components included to reduce food waste, such as zippers for resealability, may not be recyclable or could render the entire package unrecyclable. To avoid this, new features should be evaluated for compatibility with current recycling infrastructure. Food manufacturers and retailers can also explore compostability as a pathway for packaging that contains food that may spoil easily, such as salad greens. While prevention is the first and most important step for tackling food waste, interim strategies that divert food waste from landfills will also be critical. Certified compostable packaging can make it easier for consumers to compost and reduce composting facilities’ reliance on depackaging equipment. 

Naturally, since these efforts are intended to support individuals and households in reducing their food waste, a concerted consumer education campaign is required alongside a packaging revolution. ReFED data shows that 37% of food surplus is generated by the residential sector, and a key component of addressing this bucket of waste is helping consumers understand how to store and preserve food. There is even a business case for on-pack information and education (like an icon showing bread can be frozen), since consumers will feel more satisfied with products they can use to the utmost and trust to be safe and thoughtful about sustainability.

Food manufacturers and retailers have an opportunity to significantly reduce food waste by designing packaging with consumers in mind. Package sustainability and food waste reduction do not need to be at odds, and in fact the market is ripe for innovators who can align these goals.”The guide gives companies a starting point for using packaging design to prevent food waste, meet climate goals, and integrate features that consumers will value and appreciate,” says Olga Kachook, Director of Bioeconomy & Reuse Initiatives at SPC. Consult the new SPC guide to learn more about best practices for sustainable package design.

ReFED is a national nonprofit working to end food loss and waste across the food system by advancing data-driven solutions to the problem. ReFED leverages data and insights to highlight supply chain inefficiencies and economic opportunities; mobilizes and connects people to take targeted action; and catalyzes capital to spur innovation and scale high-impact initiatives. ReFED’s goal is a sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food system that optimizes environmental resources, minimizes climate impacts, and makes the best use of the food we grow.

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