Food losses are fuelling climate change crisis

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Optimised plastic packaging extends shelf life of products

Unused food also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions

Around 30 per cent of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are food related. However, according to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about a third of all food produced for human consumption never reaches the consumer’s plate but ends up in the rubbish instead. As the environmental organisation WWF has pointed out, this means that around ten per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to such food waste.

It makes sense, therefore, to try to eliminate food waste wherever possible as this will reduce the generation of GHGs and thereby contribute to avoiding climate change. Innovative packaging can help reduce food waste by protecting the food from rapid spoilage, preventing damage at all stages along the supply chain, and by extending the shelf life of many products. The use of optimised packaging ensures that the climate-damaging gases that are generated during the production of the food are not generated in vain. Scientists estimate that packaging could reduce the so-called climate footprint attributable to food production by eight to ten per cent.

The problem is expected to get worse

The world’s population is currently about seven billion people, but forecasts predict that this will rise to over nine billion by 2050. This will inevitably increase the global demand for food. According to calculations made by the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMEL), agricultural production will have to be increased by around two-thirds by 2050 in order to meet this demand. Ensuring adequate food production will go hand in hand with a further increase in GHG emissions and will thus place an additional burden on the environment. 

In this context, it will be more important than ever to take into consideration the above-mentioned high level of food waste, whether it be food that spoils in the fields, during transport or storage at home, or is disposed of by the trade because it has passed its sell-by date. 

Project investigates stopping waste and saving food

Packaging will have a key role to play in the avoidance of food waste. A research project called ‘STOP Waste – SAVE Food’, which was carried out by scientists under the leadership of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna in cooperation with food trading companies and packaging manufacturers, came to the conclusion that optimised packaging almost always generates net ecological benefits because the benefits attributable to packaging’s contribution to stopping food waste significantly outweigh the ecological cost of producing the packaging or optimising it. 

The research project was started at the end of 2016. It dealt in a very practical manner with the question of whether improved protection and extended shelf life of food through optimised processing and innovative packaging solutions can really lead to a reduction in food waste. The researchers’ conclusion was clear: innovative packaging can extend the shelf life of many food products and thus protect them from premature spoilage — with the associated benefits as far as the environment is concerned.

But that’s not all: plastic packaging also contributes to greater sustainability. Over and above the longer shelf life of packaged food and the reduction in food waste, plastic packaging’s most important benefits include better hygiene and reduced fuel consumption during transport. Plastic packaging also scores points for better recyclability.

Avoiding waste improves the carbon footprint of the food production chain

The results of the ‘STOP Waste – SAVE Food’ project were summarised in a guide entitled Food Packaging Sustainability. The guide’s aim is to contribute to a more objective discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of different packaging options. In the foreword to the guide, its authors also make it clear that global food systems must become more sustainable in order to become fit for the future. Stopping food waste would reduce the overall carbon footprint of this value chain.

When it comes to the important criteria for optimising packaging, the scientists emphasise that any packaging must afford the required product protection, must use as little material as possible and, if possible, be recyclable or reusable. These are criteria that are already fulfilled by plastic packaging. The authors also point out that packaging should only be avoided where it is not absolutely necessary for product protection or in cases where there are other requirements. Packaging should not be eliminated at the expense of increased food waste.

The scientists involved in the ‘STOP Waste – SAVE Food’ project make it clear that packaging often contributes significantly to reducing food losses thanks to its ability to provide the necessary protection. They emphasise that where this is the case, the ecological benefit from avoiding food waste is usually five to ten times greater than the ecological cost of the packaging. This means plastic packaging not only makes an important contribution to stopping food waste, which is also extremely critical from an ethical point of view, but also to environmental protection.

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