Food for Thought

Packaging Industry Monitors Federal Efforts to Reduce Food Waste

Food for Thought

In late 2023, the Biden administration unveiled a draft strategy for reducing food waste in the United States, an effort designed to curb potent climate changing emissions from landfills. The strategy maps out various actions that could be taken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

“Reducing food loss and waste is one of the most impactful actions we can take to reduce climate pollution and build a circular economy,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement. “Working together with our partners at USDA and FDA, we will take actions to significantly reduce waste and the pollution that comes with it while improving our food system and boosting the economy.” 

Citing consumer education as a priority, the 34-page document calls for a national campaign to publicize the environmental and economic impacts of food waste and to share tips for waste prevention. But the report titled “Draft National Strategy for Reducing Food Loss and Waste and Recycling Organics” also spells out a role for private sector entities up and down the food chain, including the packaging industry. According to one estimate cited in the strategy, more than 85% of greenhouse gas emissions linked to food waste occur before food is dumped in a landfill—which would be during production, processing, and distribution. 

“Some of the most effective solutions to preventing consumer food waste may lie upstream from households,” according to the draft strategy. “Changes in the consumer environment should be explored, with partners in retail, foodservice, and food manufacturing industries and food advocates, to make it easier for all consumers and community types to waste less food.”

The flexible packaging industry backs the overall goal of reducing food waste. However, industry executives are concerned the draft strategy fails to reflect the value of plastic and flexible packaging in tackling the problem.

“Packaging helps preserve food and extends its shelf life so that less food is lost or wasted, while also lowering the greenhouse gas footprint of that loss and waste,” writes Alison Keane, president and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), in formal comments on the draft strategy.

Targets Set

U.S. officials want to slash food waste in half by 2030, which puts the country in line to meet a target also set by the United Nations. However, the draft strategy noted several challenges ahead. They include limited research funding for the issue of food waste and a dearth of infrastructure for handling and recycling organic waste. The strategy also notes that public outreach campaigns on the issue have been limited and largely ineffective.

To address the issue, the strategy includes several broad objectives: preventing food loss and food waste where possible, increasing the recycling rate for organic waste, and supporting policies that encourage the prevention of food loss and waste while leading to growth in recycling. EPA, for example, hopes food recycling can help the agency meet its goal of a 50% recycling rate by 2030.

“The solution, in our opinion, is not to eradicate plastic packaging, but to use it only when it is absolutely necessary, keep it as lean as possible, and develop infrastructure to facilitate its collection, sorting, and recycling to support a circular economy.”

Gary Ward, chief technology officer for StePacPPC

Packaging comes up in several areas. As part of efforts to reduce food loss, for example, the strategy outlines the need for innovations in handling, routing, and storage. But the document also tasks USDA with researching new bio-based and renewably sourced packaging.

“These products protect and enhance food products, eliminate or reduce pathogens, address antimicrobial resistance, extend shelf life, and reduce food waste and reliance on fossil fuel-based packaging,” according to the strategy, which also argues that plastic-based contamination of food waste hinders recycling.

Nonetheless, packaging is seen as playing a role in helping consumers cut down on waste. “For example, successful efforts in other countries have included changes in packaging design, date labeling, marketing promotions, and portion sizes,” according to the strategy.

Recognizing the Role of Packaging

Packaging industry executives back the broader goal of reducing food waste and food loss. However, they argue the strategy does not fully credit the role that plastic packaging can play in tackling the problem.

Industry executives are particularly concerned about ensuring the drive to cut food waste does not feed into what they see as misguided efforts to broadly cut the use of plastic. Canada, for example, is moving ahead with rules that dramatically curtail the use of plastic in food packaging, though the rules have faced legal challenges.

“Plastic packaging helps reduce fresh produce waste in the supply chain resulting from logistical challenges of time and distance, and getting food to hungry people before it spoils, in particular, produce that has a shorter lifespan,” says Gary Ward, chief technology officer for StePacPPC. “Eliminating its use without ensuring that a suitable replacement solution is in place is highly likely to increase food waste further and defies logic.”

Years of research support the benefits of plastic packaging in the reduction of food waste, he says. “Unfortunately, there has been insufficient research conducted on the implications of eradicating such plastic packaging, in particular, the impact this will have on food waste and the environmental footprint of the product,” Ward says.

Keane, in her formal comments, urges the Biden administration to recognize and encourage the use of current packaging technologies to prevent food loss and waste while reducing carbon emissions. She also called for incentives to spur research and development on packaging and recycling technologies.

Bio-based plastics are worth exploring, Keane adds. But they should not be treated differently than other packaging materials—and the U.S. needs to invest more in materials-neutral recycling and composting infrastructure.

“The U.S. industrial composting system is too scarce for the average consumer, with very few communities having access,” she writes. “In addition, most industrial composting programs for households do not accept the related food packaging, be it paper, bio-based plastic, or another compostable format.”

Emphasizing Education

Whatever role packaging plays in addressing food waste, consumer education is likely to be a critical component.

The draft strategy suggests that a national campaign to change consumer behavior “could enable businesses across the food supply chain, and also consumers, to make a noticeable difference in reducing food loss and waste.”

Based on successful campaigns in other countries, U.S. officials would aim to raise awareness about the environmental and economic impacts of food waste. The average family of four in the U.S. spends about $1,500 each year on food that is never eaten.

Messages would share waste prevention tactics such as better storage and meal planning, according to the draft strategy. The campaign would also aim to influence children through various school-based programs such as a USDA effort to reduce food waste in school cafeterias.

EPA and USDA also hope to lean on behavioral science to understand what strategies would work best to change consumer behavior. Efforts in other countries have included changes in packaging design, date labeling, marketing promotion, and portion sizes.

Some of that is already happening in the U.S., according to Michael Richmond, a principal at PTIS, LLC, a packaging consulting firm. As an example, he cites the introduction in recent years of 8 oz. soda cans.

“A lot of consumer research shows that’s the amount that people want to have,” Richmond says.

But education also should focus on the benefits of packaging itself, say Richmond and other industry executives. They worry that packaging is often misunderstood by consumers who are hearing mixed messages. On the one hand, groups are arguing to avoid the use of plastic, but on the other hand, others are noting its critical role in preserving and protecting food, Richmond says.

“I think that’s an issue and a concern,” he says.

Indeed, FPA has found that many consumers do not recognize that flexible packaging, in particular, protects food in the home, Keane writes in her comments on the draft strategy, citing an association study. As a result, consumers practice “unpacking strategies that potentially decrease the longevity of products (i.e. taking products out of their packaging or piercing [modified atmosphere packaging] products to ‘let them breathe’).”

However, Keane notes that consumers who do recognize the benefits of packaging have fewer negative attitudes about it.

“The same study also found that when presented with factually correct information about the environmental effects of food waste, consumers became more likely to prefer flexible packaging as the sustainable material of choice,” she writes.

Forthcoming research from FPA, meanwhile, aims to reinforce the benefits of the newest packaging technologies such as modified atmosphere packaging, a technology being advanced by companies like StePacPPC.

StePacPPC’s recent innovations include a lidding film solution for berry packaging that preserves product quality, enhances food safety, and reduces the use of plastic in comparison with traditional packaging.

StePacPPC has also developed numerous products that facilitate the shipping of produce by boat rather than air, making a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Like others in the industry, StePacPPC executives hope policymakers account for those benefits as they finalize their strategy for reducing food waste and food loss.

“The solution, in our opinion, is not to eradicate plastic packaging, but to use it only when it is absolutely necessary, keep it as lean as possible, and develop infrastructure to facilitate its collection, sorting, and recycling to support a circular economy,” Ward says. 

Joel Berg is a freelance editor and writer based in York, Pennsylvania.