Food waste emerges as one of modern society’s most pressing hot-button issues
April 24, 2014
by George Guidoni, Editor, Canadian Packaging
In a perfect world, no one would ever have to go hungry for long on the account of there not being enough food to go around for everybody.
But with chronic hunger estimated to be an everyday reality for about 850 million people around the globe, the modern world as we know it is sadly very far removed from perfection on many levels.
However, what makes this grim reality a tellingly damning indictment of how the modern world works is not that the contemporary society is incapable of producing enough food to go around—it certainly does—but rather its hapless collective inability to get its vast food resources to people who need it the most in timely fashion.
According to the often-cited statistics gathered by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, at least one-third of all the food produced globally for human consumption each year—or about 1.3 billion tonnes of food worth a staggering US$900 billion—simply ends up as waste.
Unless this issue is addressed with due urgency and diligence, this sorry situation is likely to get much worse in coming decades, given the United Nations’ mid-range projections for global population to peak at about 9.5 billion by 2075—resulting in additional three billion mouths to feed.
If there are any good news in this generally dire scenario, it has to be that the world’s leading non-governmental organizations and authorities on the subject have acknowledged both the problem and its disastrous implications for the future.
Furthermore, leading food industry experts have identified the many weak areas in the existing global food supply chain offering the biggest opportunities for improvement through practical solutions.
While the stereotype picture of affluent western consumers purchasing more food than they can consume is not entirely without its basis, irresponsible consumer behavior is just one part of a much larger disconcerting picture.
According to the Cut Waste, Grow Profit report prepared by the Value Chain Management Centre branch of the Guelph, Ont.-based research think-tank George Morris Centre, wasteful consumers are actually just the last major link in a multiflawed, multistage process that also encompasses farming, distribution, retail, foodservice and the afore-mentioned consumers as key target areas for much-needed improvement.
Farming. “At the farm level, the majority of waste occurs post-harvest due to inadequate sorting, incorrect handling, lack of correct storage technology, or due to spillage and degradation during handling or transportation from farm to further processing facilities,” the report notes.
Processing. “Losses occur when crops are graded, washed, peeled, sliced and boiled or during process interruptions and accidental spillage,” says the report, identifying the food processing industry as the second-largest contributor to food waste.
“Similar to farm level production, some of the waste that occurs in food processing is due to specific requirements of buyers, or changing their purchasing decisions at short notice,” the study notes.
“Issues are exacerbated when packaged surplus products that have been developed for supermarkets’ own brand cannot be sold elsewhere and therefore result in waste.”
Distribution. Although transport and distribution process deficiencies account for a relatively smallish three-percent share of the total food waste, according to the study, the distribution sector can also do its part by making sure that produce is kept a proper temperatures, for example, or shortening the time that imported products are kept on the loading docks for testing and approval.
“The biggest source of waste at the distribution phase is the rejection of perishable shipments that are often dumped … the food waste that can occur at distribution centers due to the suboptimal harvest, cooling and handling of perishable product such as fruit.”
Retail. The report directs a large part of the blame for food waste at the retail level to poor communications between the different supply chain partners, which often leads to overordering and overproduction.
This imbalance is often a result of the so-called “demand amplification,” the reports observes, “where the sharing of inaccurate information between businesses leads to steadily progressive and extreme fluctuations between demand and supply along the value chain, [which] is a particularly common cause of food waste occurring between processors, distributors and retailers.”
The problem is even more acute for the smaller convenience-store operators stocking a lot of ready-made food products, who on average discard up to 25 per cent of all of their food products in the U.S., compared to about 10 per cent for larger grocery chain operators.
“Food marketing has also played a significant role in encouraging wasteful consumer behavior,” the George Morris Centre study points out. “Coupons, ‘buy one get one free’ offers and super-sized portions encourage consumers to buy more than they need.
“Retailers operate under the practice that customers prefer to buy from fully-stocked, towering displays, which leads to overstocking and overhandling by staff and customers.
“This behavior damages items at the bottom and shortens shelf-life,” the report states.
“As we move toward a more affluent society, the trend for pre-prepared convenience food is growing,” the report cautions, “and if left unaddressed, it is conceivable that food waste among retailers could rise in coming years.”
Foodservice. For the most part, the report identifies poor quality standards at institutions such as schools, hospitals and penitentiaries—as well as overserving—as main culprits behind the so-called ‘plate waste,’ noting that U.S. diners leave about 17 per cent of their meals uneaten.
Consumers. As the largest single contributor to overall food waste, consumers are generally guilty of excess purchases, cooking too much, failing to consume products by their expiration dates and improper food storage, according to the study.
“Among consumers there is a general lack of knowledge and understanding regarding food safety and preparation,” the study observes. “Many are confused about label dates and believe they indicate a product’s safety.
“Other reasons for increases in food waste include a trend away from in-home food preparation and meal planning.
“This may lead to impulse and bulk purchases that are beyond the households’ requirements.”
Another major similar report from the U.K.-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers also identifies poor consumer habits and decision-making as a major factor behind its even higher estimate of two million tonnes of food being wasted each year.
Titled Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not, the report continuously cites inadequate infrastructure and storage facilities, overly strict sell-by dates, buy-one-get-one free offers and consumers demanding cosmetically perfect food as being among the leading causes of excessive food waste.
“It also leads to a waste of water and energy resources that were used in the production, processing and distribution of food which ends up in the bin,” the report states. “By improving processes and infrastructure, as well as changing consumer mindsets, 60 to 100 per cent more food could be produced.”
Some of the report’s troubling highlights include:
If there is a bright side in the report, “There is the potential to provide 60 to 100 per cent more food by eliminating losses and waste while at the same time freeing up land, energy and water resources.”
To realize that potential, the global packaging industry will definitely have a big role to play, according to Jin Downham, president of PAC Packaging Consortium in Toronto.
Says Downham: It has been well-documented that approximately one-third of all food produced globally is being wasted, and the social, environmental and economic impacts of this number are staggering.
“We want to identify and quantify packaging solutions and then educate and encourage implementation of these solutions,” says Downham, explaining recent formation of the PAC Food Waste action group dedicated to this purpose.
Including big-name corporate founding members such as Sobeys, Loblaw’s, Target, Molson Coors, Nestle, DuPont, Dow Chemical and Sealed Air, the PAC Food Waste committee is chaired by Bruce Smith, director of global packaging for Molson Coors Canada in Toronto.
“There are opportunities to reduce food waste throughout the supply chain through packaging improvements,” states Smith. “We want to investigate the causes, identify opportunities for innovation, extend product shelf-life, inform and educate the broader community.
“Our goal is maximize the reduction of food waste through prevention and extension of shelf-life utilizing sustainable packaging solutions.”
Adds Downham: “Extending shelf-life of products through active and intelligent packaging, and innovative barrier technological breakthroughs are some examples of where packaging can help.
“Some products, like fruits and vegetables, need to be packaged to extend shelf-life, while some products needs to be repackaged once opened.
“Also, the sell-by and buy-before labeling needs to be modified and improved upon along, with a better understanding of what this means,” Downham says, adding the packaging industry will have a major challenge on its hands in reconciling demand for more sustainable packaging solutions in coming years with those of food waste reduction.
“There is an interesting juxtaposition between creating additional packaging—say single-serving versus conventionally brewed coffee—and mitigating food waste,” he acknowledges. “We will be doing a full life-cycle analysis on single-serve coffee to understand what these implications look like.
“By having both PAC NEXT sustainable packaging chapter and the PAC Food Waste initiatives working side by side, we will continue to focus on reducing waste in both areas of concern.
“We really need to get educated on the entire triple bottom-line implications so that we can educate the broader community, and especially the business world, so that they can see the financial bottom-line impact,“ Downham states, “as there are big savings to be had for all in the supply chain as well as for consumers.
“Those that embrace the concept, the first movers, will realize the most savings and will likely gain market share as well.”
Alan Davey, director of innovation at the U.K.-headquartered reusable plastic packaging products group LINPAC Packaging, agrees that packaging has a key role to play in really moving the needle on food waste.
“It would not be wrong to say that if packaging was invented today it would be regarded as one of the greatest green technologies due to its protective and preserving qualities,” Davey states. “Imagine a world without packaging; the manufacture, transport, distribution and consumption of virtually every consumer good would be impossible.
“Quality packaging can significantly reduce waste across the entire supply chain by giving food a longer shelf-life and ensuring that food can be transported around the world safely and securely.”
According to Davey, changing demographics have had a major impact on the increase in food waste in western societies—primarily due to the rapid growth of single-person households, which are estimated to throw an average of 22 per cent of the food they purchase.
“Well-designed packaging can help consumers buy the right amount of food and then keep it in the best condition for longer,” says Davey, citing his company’s recently-lunched ‘split-packs’ that allow consumers to buy a tray of four chicken fillets, for example, to open one side of the pack and use two of them for cooking, while storing the remains in the fridge for later use in a completely sealed environment.
“While food waste remains such a major problem for the environment, it is essential for all the links in the food supply chain to play their part in solving the problem,” Davey states.
“At LINPAC Packaging, we are acutely aware of our role in helping consumers minimize food waste by designing innovative packaging solutions which enable them to only select the food they want to use, and in maximizing the shelf-life of stored products in their homes.
“It is essential that the products we develop also respond to changing lifestyles and consumer concerns,” he states.
For example, Davey notes that LINPAC has recently teamed up with U.K.-based specialty additives group Addmaster to develop a technically-advanced range of trays and films with built-in antimicrobial technology to reduce bacteria growth on the outer packaging of fresh meat.
According to Davey, this technology also helps to reduce spoilage and increase the shelf-life of food products by inhibiting the growth of bacteria, molds and yeast, as well as reduce the risk of contamination from pathogens such as E.Coli, salmonella, listeria and campylobacter.
“Food waste and sustainable packaging are very much at the top of our agenda, and we are committed to developing packaging solutions which are innovative, groundbreaking, and capable of addressing the challenges of the future.
“At LINPAC Packaging, we recognize our role in helping retailers deliver safer food products and supporting them and consumers in minimizing waste by designing new safer, innovative packaging solutions.”
PAC Food waste:
A Catalyst for Food Waste Packaging Solutions
To unite leading packaging value chain
North American organizations to collaboratively explore, evaluate and mobilize packaging food waste solutions.
To investigate the causes of food waste,
identify opportunities for innovation, extend product shelf life, inform and educate the broader community.
Maximize the reduction of food waste through prevention and extension of shelf life utilizing sustainable packaging solutions.
Serving North America while sharing
Alignment with Save Food, Food Waste Reduction Alliance and like-minded organizations
Supply Chain Boundary
From farm & sea to home consumer.