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Elevating the Role of Packaging in Discussions about Food Waste Reduction

Posted By Sonja Nelson, Wednesday, May 8, 2019
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Elevating the Role of Packaging in Discussions about Food Waste Reduction

The news of interagency cooperation at the federal level to address food waste is a positive development. The six-part strategy announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in April 2019 brings needed attention to the growing problem of food waste. Along with this unified focus comes a call for increased collaboration at all levels of government, with the private sector and with other stakeholders.

Increased collaboration needed to meet goals

There’s no question that greater collaboration is needed if the U.S. is to reach the federal government’s goal of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030. AMERIPEN believes that the role of packaging in preventing food waste needs to be part of those conversations. And we’re not alone. ReFED, a group of business, nonprofit, foundation and government leaders ― and a key partner working with the EPA, USDA and FDA ― has identified the optimization of packaging as one of the top three most effective solutions for reducing food waste in the U.S.

Magnitude of the problem

Every year, 40% of the food we produce in the U.S. goes to waste. That waste has an economic impact as well as a negative effect food security and the environment. According to ReFED, we spend $218 billion each year growing, processing, transporting and disposing food that is never eaten. That number represents 1.3% of our country’s GDP and results in 52 million tons of food sent to landfills annually and 10 million more tons discarded or left unharvested on farms. At the same time, one in seven Americans is food insecure.

Ensuring that food gets consumed instead of wasted is key to reducing the economic, food security and environmental impacts. Food waste is the largest single type of material in landfills across the U.S., driving up greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As food moves through the supply chain from production and harvesting to processing, consumption and disposal, the environmental impact — including use of energy, land and water resources as well as GHG emissions — continues to add up.

Role of packaging in reducing food waste

More than 80% of food waste in the U.S. occurs in homes and consumer-facing businesses. The perishable nature of many fresh foods is the leading cause of consumer and retail food waste. Packaging plays an essential role in reducing this waste because it protects products from damage, spoilage and contamination. Packaging designed for smaller portion sizes also can help reduce household food loss.

AMERIPEN analyzed packaged food waste data and uncovered a correlation between the foods with the highest percentage of wastage and those with the least amount of packaging. In its report, “Quantifying the Value of Packaging as a Strategy to Prevent Food Waste in America,” AMERIPEN used national-level data to show the link between packaging and food waste by demonstrating that regions with the highest rates of food waste also have the least amount of packaged foods.

Integrating packaging and food waste policy

AMERIPEN has long advocated for the integration of food waste and packaging policies. As more attention is focused on collaborative approaches to reducing food waste, it is essential that policymakers consider the full life cycle of food and the packaging that protects it. A key challenge is that food waste policies are often focused on end-of-life disposal (e.g., composting, donation, anaerobic digestion) rather than on prevention, while packaging policies are primarily focused on end-of-life recycling rather than on packaging’s role in product protection to reduce food waste.

For example, policies designed to reduce packaging in the waste stream may inadvertently penalize packaging innovations that reduce food waste. Policies promoting recyclability, light-weighting and materials bans, while well-intentioned, may overlook the true value and primary mission of packaging: to protect the food it encloses. What’s needed instead is an integrated policy approach that considers the full lifecycle of each material.

Current policies around food waste often emphasize redistribution, reuse through anaerobic digestion and composting, and date labelling to reduce consumer confusion about food shelf life. Seen through the lens of the waste management hierarchy, none of these policies tackle prevention — the top strategy for waste management. Prevention of food waste not only saves food from going to waste but also results in six times greater GHG emissions savings than composting, seven times greater than anaerobic digestion and three times more than redistribution. Integrating packaging and food waste policies to create a holistic strategy is the most effective solution.

Increasing dialogue

As the public and private sectors grapple with the growing problem of food waste, conversations that promote greater understanding of the interconnected nature of potential solutions are needed to avoid unintended consequences and ensure the most effective strategies are put in place. To that end, AMERIPEN is hosting a stakeholder dialogue event in partnership with the Food Waste Reduction Alliance on June 17, 2019 at the General Mills World Headquarters in Minneapolis, MN to explore potential opportunities to collaborate on the value packaging can play in reducing food waste in the U.S. Click here to learn more about this important event.

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