While most people abhor when food is wasted, that doesn’t stop food waste from being one of the biggest contributors to environmental concerns.
The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 31% of food is lost at the retail and consumer levels. And food waste is one of the largest contributors to the materials that go into landfills, second only to paper and paperboard products, says Evan Arnold, vice president of business development for Glenroy, Inc.
In addition, the challenges with landfilling food include that it increases levels of methane gas, with landfills accounting for 15% of methane emissions. Those emissions add to the overall problems with greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, Arnold says.
“So how do we attack this challenge head-on?” says Arnold, who spoke during a presentation held in September during the PACK EXPO Las Vegas and Healthcare Packaging EXPO at the Las Vegas Convention Center. One answer is preserving and extending the shelf life of food through flexible packaging.
Issues Known for a While
The problems with food waste have been known for a long time, but consumers historically have been slow to grasp the full extent of the issues, as shown in a study commissioned by the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) in 2014.
“In food waste studies, consumers rarely mention environmental consequences as a motivator to minimize food waste (unless prompted),” according to the Value of Flexible Packaging in
Extending Shelf Life and Reducing Food Waste report prepared by McEwen Associates. “They feel guilty wasting money and wasting good food that someone else could have eaten, but, when they place the food in the trash bin, they do not believe it is bad environmentally. When asked about this they state: food is natural, it is biodegradable. It’s OK.”
The FPA report further showed that consumers often were not aware of the benefits packaging can offer to maximize in-home shelf-life. “There is a clear interest in packaging that can maintain food freshness, both before and after opening,” according to the report.
FPA suggested that flexible packaging manufacturers have the potential to take a lead in overcoming the various challenges. “Food waste is a critical issue that will only grow in importance,” says The Role of Flexible Packaging in Reducing Food Waste report prepared by PTIS, LLC for FPA. “By taking a systems approach of looking at both product and packaging, packaging has an opportunity to be the ‘hero’ that reduces food waste and most importantly, delivers food to the 1 billion that are already undernourished globally.”
Evans notes that a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows that the first thing people can do is reduce the amount of surplus food generated, and the most effective way to do that is to increase shelf life and usage at home, he says. If food is preserved longer, Arnold explains, it will be consumed and not reach landfills.
One example is guacamole, which has greatly expanded in popularity along with the main ingredient of avocados. Production has tripled in recent years. But most guacamole packaging only protects the product one or two days before it starts to turn brown, and then most people don’t want to eat it, especially if it goes into the third or fourth day.
For Glenroy, it took on three challenges: to increase the shelf life of guacamole after a package was opened; to expand the packaging options; and to increase the functionality and ease of use. “This was quite the challenge,” Arnold says.
While options existed for foodservice customers, there were no options for consumers. Single-serve containers might work but that means more packaging, especially when one pack is not enough and two is too much, he adds.
Glenroy conducted intensive testing with various styles of pouches, with the main priority to prevent moisture and oxygen from getting in after a package was opened. The company developed a stand-up inverted flexible standcap package. Its high barrier to oxygen and moisture allows the product to stay fresh for up to three times longer than other packages. Once squeezed, a closure snaps back and doesn’t allow oxygen back into the package.
“This has the potential to save millions and millions of wasted avocados every year,” Arnold says. “This will reduce the amount of food waste going into landfills.”
The production of the pouches also uses fewer fossil fuels, emits fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and uses less water than other pouches. “The eco-benefits of this are incredible,” Arnold says, adding that challenges remain, such as improving recyclability.
Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.
SIDEBAR: Food Waste and Plastic Bans
At times, laws and rules put in place to combat plastic waste have had unintended consequences. For example, a ban on plastic bags in Rwanda has made it difficult for the Women’s Bakery to operate, says Markey Culver, CEO and founder of the bakery that is owned and operated by women to serve communities in East Africa. Last year, Culver appealed to FPA to spread the word about issues the bakery faces trying to keep its products fresh.
“For context, we are running into obstacles in Rwanda with packaging,” she wrote to FPA President and CEO Alison Keane. “All single-use plastics are prohibited, but there are no alternatives.”
Keane subsequently invited Culver’s organization to address FPA members at the annual meeting being held March 23–25 in Bonita Springs, Florida. An in-depth article on the bakery can be found in the March/April issue of FlexPack VOICE® magazine, as well as online.