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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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Bridging the Data Gap is Essential for Incorporating Sustainable Materials Management into States’ Waste Reduction Models

Posted By Sonja Nelson, Tuesday, February 26, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Bridging the Data Gap is Essential for Incorporating Sustainable Materials Management into States’ Waste Reduction Models

All waste is not created equal when it comes to calculating environmental impact. It makes sense, yet too often we set waste diversion goals and policies based on a standardized approach. Figuring out how to compare wastes and impacts and accurately measure diversion success is a complex task and frequently debated. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supports use of a Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) framework, which focuses on minimizing resource consumption and adverse environment impacts throughout a material’s lifecycle, from extraction through processing, manufacturing, usage and eventually end-of-life management.

Applying an SMM approach has been one framework to help states explore impact versus diversion, but direction on how to apply it towards goal setting and policy making has been lacking. AMERIPEN sought to fill that gap. We were intrigued by the work of Dr. Tim Townsend at the University of Florida, who developed a model for applying SMM to state based waste characterizations to help set goals and direct policy focus for the State of Florida after they realized they would not reach their intended 75% recycling rate goal. AMERIPEN asked Dr. Townsend to explore how his model could apply to other states to see if we could offer additional tools to our state partners. He agreed and his resulting examination of California, Maryland and Minnesota revealed the need for better data collection in order to set SMM strategies at the state level.

Application of the model required collection of municipal solid waste data broken out by material and diversion process. With this data, Dr. Townsend then hoped to illustrate how SMM approaches can be applied and demonstrate additional impact performance metrics that are needed to supplement the current practices of measuring diversion success through recycling goals. An example of his model as applied to the State of Florida can be found here.

Dr. Townsend’s model makes use of waste characterization studies to examine what materials are diverted from landfill and where and what remain in landfill. He uses the free EPA tool WARM to help assess environmental impacts of different materials and diversion processes and then helps states to:

  • Identify how this data could be applied to complement weight-based recycling rate goals
  • Design material- or diversion-based strategies
  • Consider policy or program impacts to reduce environmental burdens associated with waste management

Understanding the waste stream

Key to his model is an understanding of material volumes across various waste streams. In the U.S., approaches to capturing waste data vary by state, making progress comparisons difficult. Of the three states AMERIPEN evaluated, none had all the data needed to help explore Dr. Townsend’s model and understand environmental impacts and opportunities by material type. Data was either lacking by material type, diversion method or simply there was not enough historical data to examine changes over time. The results of the AMERIPEN funded study demonstrated the challenges posed by inconsistent data collection practices used in waste characterization studies when implementing SMM. As a rational outcome of this work, AMERIPEN would encourage the development of strategies to help standardize or provide guidelines to help streamline waste characterization studies to permit for better SMM assessments and state-by-state benchmarking.

Consider capacity and markets

AMERIPEN notes while models are valuable to help explore and assess opportunities, assumptions or emphasize within a model may simplify some of the complexities of practical implementation. The association cautions that any development based on the SMM model which is designed to assess materials by impact on energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions via different recovery approaches, should also consider existing recovery rates, local market dynamics and the ultimate capacity to collect more. These local dynamics can have significant impact on implementation success and should not be viewed in isolation of environmental outcomes.  For example, while paper recycling may offer a significantly reduced environmental burden, if paper recycling already is near 70 percent it is important to evaluate how much more of the remaining material in a landfill could reasonably be recovered and assess the local capacity for additional recycling before setting any material-specific goals. Likewise, in an area where the focus is on plastics recycling but a lack of domestic processing options are available, it is wise to consider local capacity in the context of environmental burdens.

Another caution the association points out with the model is the exploration of landfill to combustion. While the research correctly notes that it is common practice for many states to collect co-mingled waste for combustion or landfill—this practice assumes that recyclables are removed from waste collection services—which is not always the case. The recommendation then to burn contaminated mixed paper over landfill due to reduce energy and GHG emissions--assumes that all available paper is first collected and then recycled—there is an assumption that what remains in a comingled waste stream would be unrecoverable.

AMERIPEN notes discussions around collection and how to drive increased recovery of materials needs to accompany many of the model assumptions to ensure we realize the true potential of SMM frameworks for State-based waste management policies. This type of analysis was provided in Dr. Townsend’s first assessment for Florida and is seen in both Maryland and Oregon’s material-specific goal setting.  

Understanding local capacity for recycling or other recovery methods means looking at availability of infrastructure, consumer behavior approaches and material quality. States are likely to adopt different strategies based upon this type of assessment.

Variety of tools

As states begin to adopt SMM as a framework for waste management, AMERIPEN supports the development of tools and models to help implement it a meaningful manner. Dr. Townsend’s work points to the value of a toolbox approach for managing the waste stream and the need to understand the various environmental burdens of different materials and waste management processes in order to reduce our environmental impact. However, the outcome of this work cautions that there is a need to help collect data that is more specific to materials and how they are managed at the end of life in order to set strategy.

Learn more about what AMERIPEN is doing to build greater clarity in defining packaging materials and management processes and advocate for a collaborative effort to formulate a comprehensive U.S. strategy to achieve the ambitious commitments necessary to move toward 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging goals that will help lead us to a Circular Economy.

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Clarity is Key When Defining Packaging Materials and Management Processes

Posted By AMERIPEN, Thursday, December 6, 2018

Clarity is Key When Defining Packaging Materials and Management Processes

There are 18 different definitions of recycling across the U.S. and even more globally. Yet how we define recycling and other key terms – “recyclable,” “reusable,” “compostable,” “renewable” and “recycled content” – has a major influence on the future of packaging. Understanding of what is meant by these terms informs how goals are set and results are measured, influences policy creation and drives the application of regulations.

Impact of variation

It’s no surprise that definitions often vary depending upon who’s doing the defining. Unfortunately, these differences can create trade and marketing obstacles when one jurisdiction’s definition differs from another’s. For example, materials deemed recyclable in one location and not in another can have a negative effect on trade and drive consumer confusion. For these reasons, definitions related to packaging materials management must be interpreted consistently.

New guide brings clarity

At AMERIPEN, we believe in clarity. That’s why we developed “Packaging Materials Management Definitions: A Review of Varying Global Standards.” The purpose of this guide is to improve alignment around definitions of packaging materials and management processes.

The AMERIPEN guide reviews and compares global frameworks put forth by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and others. The document provides a detailed, side-by-side comparison of definitions for common packaging attributes and processes. With this resource you can quickly see, for example, how the definition of “reusable” varies by source, including those provided by the FTC Green Guides, ISO 14021:2016 – Environmental Labels and Declarations, ISO 18603:2013 – Packaging and the Environment, the European Waste Framework Directive and others.

As the vision of a circular economy grows – and along with it the proliferation of definitions related to reuse, recycling and composting – there’s increasing uncertainty about which definitions take precedence. The AMERIPEN guide spells out very clearly the legal hierarchy of definitions when it comes to policy and regulatory implications.

See for yourself why this resource is an invaluable tool for anyone seeking to understand the origin and applicability of key terms related to packaging materials management goals and processes. As more brands work toward achieving ambitious 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable goals tied to packaging attributes, understanding how those attributes are defined – and how they affect validation of claims – is instrumental.

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