Ninety million tons of food is wasted each year in the European Union, and food waste is expected to grow by 40 percent by 2020.
The European Union has declared 2014 the European year against food waste and in the lead up, is examining the effects on food waste from food packaging. Within the industry, using fewer and more efficient materials for packaging has a positive impact on the costs of getting food packaged and into the grocery store. In the EU, new innovations in packaging are being developed to ensure that foods reach the store shelf long before the expiration date, which will prevent food being thrown away before consumers have a chance to purchase it. Organic material, including vegetables, fruit, and other foods naturally emit ethylene gas, which helps them mature but also facilitates the decomposition process. A special coating for corrugated cardboard can protect food from gases that trigger decomposition, minimizing losses when food is packaged, transported to grocery stores, and purchased by consumers. Another set of innovations includes smart packaging materials, such as a type of foil that can test the microbiology of what is contained in a package. This would indicate the freshness of the contents to the consumer more clearly by displaying important information about how ripe or fresh a product really is.
But 42 percent of food waste occurs in households, according to a 2011 study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Consumers typically consider food waste as a supply chain problem – they tend to think that the majority of food waste occurs between the time it is grown until it reaches the shelves of the grocery store. But packaging can be part of the solution for minimizing household food waste. Packaging sizes for single or fewer portions, for example, or re-sealable and compartmentalized packages, can limit unnecessary waste by allowing consumers to keep the products for longer as they use only the portions that are necessary, and seal away the rest for later. To increase public understanding of the various best-before date labels, there must be an increase in education and marketing to make them easier to follow.
The European Parliament passed a January 2012 resolution, “How to avoid food wastage: strategies for a more efficient food chain in the EU” which in addition to measures to improve packaging, discussed a way to utilize products that go to waste at the retail level. The resolution proposed taking foods that are damaged or close to their expiration dates and selling them at discounted prices, to make them more accessible to people in need. They also discussed incentives for hospitality and catering businesses to buy local produce and donate leftover food to food banks free-of-charge.
The United Kingdom is already taking steps to decrease food waste, with a successful food waste initiative boasting a three-pronged integrated approach: communication with consumers, working with the food industry, and working with the packaging industry. The U.K.-based Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) is working with major food packaging companies to develop new pack technologies that increase shelf life, and packages that bring the consumer’s attention to a product once its expiration date is near. They introduced produce bags for the grocery store that have printed labels describing how to best store different items. As the EU and other regions begin to tackle the challenge, we can put more of our food on our tables instead of into the landfill.