Mouldy bread, expired meat and rotting produce top the list when it comes to groceries annually thrown away by households. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that roughly one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, amounting to about 1.3 billion tonnes or over USD1 trillion a year.
With the problem on the rise, the UN General Assembly designated September 29 as the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste. Solutions to the issue are being sought from all sides, including how packaging can play a greater role in reducing food waste.
One end-use alternative is barrier papers, which aim to be sustainable without compromising safety and performance, as well as performing their primary task: protecting the product.
Raising barriers against food waste
There are plenty of reasons why food is wasted, such as buying too much, poor planning, over-sized package sizes, spoiled goods and weakened kitchen skills to utilise already cooked food. While consumers and retailers have their role to play, good packaging is one solution that could reduce those losses, says Juha-Matti Katajajuuri, Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Institute Finland (LUKE).
Packaging can prevent spoilage by acting as a barrier between outside influences like light, oxygen, temperature and humidity. While innovations like barrier papers can’t be used to package everything, they are providing the best shelf life where applicable.
“In the big picture, packaging does extend the shelf life and potentially reduces food waste, but it’s not quite as evident as it is sometimes written about. It is extremely difficult to scientifically assess the situation and the actual direct effect of packaging. Ideally, we should undertake a long-term multi-household food waste study to measure any increases or decreases depending on packaging,” he adds
He believes it would also be beneficial to start comparing the carbon and environmental footprints of the various packaging options available, and there the functionality of packaging and the entire supply chain needs to be included.
This impact was emphasised by a 2014 published LUKE study that discovered that if a couple of ham slices are not eaten from a pack, the (negative) climate impact of the waste is far greater than the carbon footprint of the package’s manufacturing.
Moving packaging in the right direction
There are many ways to reduce food waste, but UPM Specialty Papers has been doing its part by developing barrier papers for consumer packaging. “Our team’s primary focus is guaranteeing the shelf life, especially since we are aspiring to develop paper-based packaging alternatives to fossil-based packaging,” says Esa Saukkonen, Manager of Packaging Portfolio Development.
He adds that their solutions aim for the optimal packaging: “We don't design barrier papers that would cause our customers to under or over pack; its important we’re not using excessive barriers for products that don't need them. The quality must meet customer demands and ensure that the environmental footprint goes in the right direction.”
“When plastic or paper-based materials are used for primary packaging and it already provides a sufficient barrier to ensure shelf life, then the requirements for the secondary outer packaging, like cardboard boxes, are not that demanding or even required. In these cases, packaging papers are a great environmentally friendly alternative without creating the risk of generating more food waste,” highlights Saukkonen.
He notes that sustainability is now the backbone of every company, so ESG targets are far more visible now than they were a decade ago. There is also more demand for paper-based solutions than there was even five years ago.
However, he concludes by emphasising that the main function of a packaging material should always be to protect the product from the packaging facility all the way to consumption: “If it doesn't do that, then it’s a failure and doesn’t help in the global fight against food waste.”
Text: Asa Butcher