Research suggests using more packaging could cut food waste

Packaging can play a greater role in keeping produce and other foods fresh, thereby minimizing food waste — especially if consumers can better understand those packaging technologies. That’s among the takeaways of research led by Michigan State University’s School of Packaging, detailed in a recently released white paper.

In the United States, food waste in landfills doubled from 1990 to 2020 and is the source of 58% of fugitive methane emissions from municipal solid waste landfills, according to data shared by the U.S. EPA this year. Researchers cited data showing 40% of the food supply is wasted each year, with 43% of that happening at the consumer or household level. 

Ameripen and the Environmental Research & Education Foundation funded research that included a survey of more than 1,000 people in the United States. Ameripen said it wanted to know what role packaging could play in reducing household food waste as well as understand consumer awareness of food packaging’s value and functions. Some findings were presented by MSU’s Eva Almenar and Korey Fennel during a webinar last week.

The survey queried consumers’ understanding of packaging formats and willingness to pay more for packaging designed to reduce food waste, among other areas.

The study found that whole fruits and vegetables, particularly bananas and lettuce, are the foods most wasted by households, with dairy products, prepared packaged foods and leftovers also common culprits. “Half-eaten packaged food products and food without packaging that spoiled before it was eaten are the two primary reasons for food waste in American household[s], indicating there is opportunity for improved packaging design to help consumers with extending shelf life, reuse, and size,” the white paper states.

Researchers reported that consumers identified “no packaging,” “bag/ pouch,” and “tray with wrap, film, or snap fit lid” to be the packaging types they used that resulted in the most household food waste. Researchers also said that while consumers’ current understanding of packaging technologies is “limited,” they indicated “they would pay more for food contained in packaging that extends freshness and shelf life.”

Researchers concluded in the white paper that “some food products, especially produce, would benefit from packaging technologies designed to extend their shelf lives and thereby reduce food waste.”

“There’s a need to design packaging for produce that is currently not packaged; most of the produce in this study that was wasted stemmed from no packaging at all,” Fennel said during the webinar, also noting the importance of “intelligent packaging” that could indicate the shelf life of food products. Going forward, education could be most strategically targeted to certain population segments, researchers also concluded.

Webinar moderator Kyla Fisher, program director at Ameripen, said that as a policy organization, Ameripen looked at the results to consider implications for legislation. “What does this mean in terms of finding that balance between food waste and packaging waste?” 

Fisher said it’s “loud and clear to us” the importance of balancing the value of packaging for reducing climate emissions, but also concerns about packaging waste. Advocacy groups such as Beyond Plastics and Environment America, for example, have urged grocery stores to use less plastic packaging, and grocery chains globally have implemented plastics reduction targets and efforts. Almenar suggested more research is needed to assess the environmental impact from extending the life of food versus the impact of packaging.

Fisher said that “while these aren’t official Ameripen policy positions,” the findings will raise discussion on how to harmonize and simplify date labels. Ameripen also noted how consumers saw value in packaging attributes like zippers, but with some states seeking to reduce the weight of packaging, it remains to be seen how to balance those factors. Ameripen also has questions about the most effective on-pack labeling and how to walk the line between legitimate messaging versus greenwashing, Fisher said.

Details of the study will later be published in multiple peer-reviewed academic journals.

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