Mankind must prevent food perishing haphazardly

© Stefan Redel -

Waste rates of up to 50 per cent are a scandal.

Packaging must protect: initially the food, then the consumer’s health.

People are justifiably outraged when they see a development like that in the USA, where half of all food is deemed ‘spoiled’ and simply goes to waste.

Food is a valuable commodity. And it is becoming more and more precious as the world’s population increases. Because these want to be fed as well.

According to official statistics, the Earth’s population was 7,754,847,000 at the end of 2019. And this number is expected to rise by an additional 2.1 billion by 2050. Experts may be expecting a slowdown in the growth rate, but the fact that the Earth only has a finite amount of agricultural land at its disposal means it will become increasingly more difficult to feed its growing population adequately. And the situation will be aggravated further as people in the emerging markets become more prosperous and their demands with respect to food increase accordingly.

One cannot just simply increase at will the size of those areas of the Earth that are, or will become, available for food production. In any case, only a fraction of the Earth’s total surface area is available for such purposes. This means there are only a limited number of important adjustments that can be made to solve the problem of supplying the world’s increasing population with food. According to estimates by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agricultural production will have to be increased significantly by the middle of this century – by around 50 per cent compared to 2013. But this is difficult given the limited amount of agricultural land available. And the fact that we need more sustainability.

Waste or loss of food is particularly important as far as the latter factor is concerned. According to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide 1.3 billion tonnes of food are thrown away every year because they are no longer edible. The FAO in turn estimates that around a third of the food produced for human consumption globally is lost or wasted at some stage in the supply chain. In Germany alone, the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) reports that around 12 million tonnes of food are thrown away every year. Statistically, the per capita food waste by private households thus amounts to 55 kilograms annually. According to an expert opinion by the BMEL’s scientific advisory councils for food, agriculture and forestry policy, a 50 per cent reduction in this source of food waste in Germany could cut emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by six million tonnes of CO2 equivalents a year. The BMEL therefore asserts that anyone who reduces food waste is actively protecting resources and the climate. Consequently, at the beginning of 2019 the Federal Cabinet adopted a national strategy to reduce food waste and this was presented by the Federal Minister for Food, Julia Klöckner.

Plastic packaging significantly reduces food losses

What is particularly annoying about food going to waste in this way is that most of it is unnecessary, because it could be avoided using simple solutions. One important way of counteracting food waste is to extend its shelf life. After all, food is not only valuable: it is also perishable. And that’s where food packaging comes in – especially plastic packaging! It protects the sensitive contents and thus makes a significant contribution to reducing or even preventing food waste.

Among other things, plastic packaging protects food from dirt, moisture, UV radiation and premature deterioration. A simple example makes this more than clear: an unpackaged cucumber without cooling becomes unsightly, unsaleable and inedible within three days. In contrast, it lasts for about 14 days if shrink-wrapped in 1.5 grams of plastic. Thanks to the plastic packaging, the cucumber stays fresh considerably longer and there is no need to produce and transport a new cucumber to replace it. The plastic packaging thus increases the shelf life of the cucumber and in doing so saves resources and cuts emissions, thereby contributing to sustainable management.

This is all the truer as the trend towards material-saving design has been going on for decades in the field of plastic packaging. As a result, the amount of plastics processed has increased far less over the past few years than would otherwise have been expected given the increase in demand. A study by Gesellschaft für Verpackungsmarktforschung (Society for Packaging Market Research) from 2015 shows that on average plastic packaging had become a good 25 per cent lighter since 1991 – without impairing its ability to protect food. Improved material properties and optimised manufacturing processes made this possible.

Packaging, especially plastic packaging, thus opens up considerable potential for conserving natural resources. And especially so when combined with a modern circular economy. However, as is the case with food, packaging should not be thrown away but should be recycled in a sensible manner. A circular economy consists of the multiple use of the material, either by reusing the container or by recycling the starting material.

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