Food loss and waste is a global problem that threatens both the environment and the economy. In fact, a 2011 study estimated that 1.3 billion tons of food produced for human consumption (one-third of the world’s food) is lost or wasted every year.
Food waste & loss is a problem that requires collaboration across the entire food supply chain. As part of that supply chain, the packaging industry has an important role to play in its prevention.
However, before we get into this important role, let’s first establish the difference between the food waste and food loss.
|Consists of food that is safe for human consumption but is discarded (usually intentionally or due to negligence).||Consists of food that gets discarded before it reaches the consumer.|
|Typically occurs at the end of the production chain (at the retail or consumer levels) due to various reasons including:
||Typically occurs at the production, storage, processing, and distribution stages due to various reasons (mostly accidental), including:
|More prevalent in developed countries||More prevalent in developing countries|
Source: “By the Numbers: Reducing Food Loss and Waste.” World Resources Institute, www.wri.org/blog/2013/06/numbers-reducing-food-loss-and-waste.
A significant amount of discarded food ends up in landfills, which then produces a large amount of methane. Even more powerful than carbon dioxide, methane is a greenhouse gas that absorbs the sun’s heat, which in turn warms Earth’s atmosphere – contributing to climate change.
And it’s not just the release of methane that’s of concern when it comes to food loss & waste. Food loss & waste also represents major losses in the resources used to produce and transport food in the first place. These resources include water, oil, land, and money.
In 2017, the National Zero Waste Council reported that almost 2.2 million tonnes of edible food is wasted in Canada each year. This not only represents a loss of about $17 billion dollars, but this waste is also the equivalent of 9.8 million tonnes of C02 emissions 
In Canada, food travels an average of 2,500 km to get to its final destination. This long journey means that products are at risk of physical damage, spills, and leaks. Food packaging, therefore, is designed to ensure that products are protected against these kinds of damage as it makes its way from farm to fork.
Top seal and clamshell packaging, for instance, are great for holding fragile food products in place as they are being transported.
Another important function of food packaging is in promoting consumer health and safety. As food travels along the supply chain; physical, microbiological, and chemical contamination are huge risk factors that need careful consideration as it can result in serious infection outbreaks and product recalls. Food packaging, to a large extent, can help prevent these types of contamination from occurring in the first place.
Types of Food Contamination
Physical contamination occurs when foreign materials such as glass or dust contaminate food products.
Microbiological contamination occurs when bacteria, yeast, viruses, or fungi contaminate food products.
Chemical contamination occurs when chemicals such as antibiotics, pesticides, or cleaning agents contaminate food products.
Certain types of food packaging (such as top seal and shrink film) are designed to both signal when food products have been tampered with and make it more difficult for tampering to occur.
Also known as tamper-evident or tamper-proof packaging, this type of packaging ensures that when a food product is tampered with (either maliciously or not), there will be obvious visual signs that the product may no longer safe to consume.
A good example of this type of packaging includes the shrink bands on ice cream containers. These shrink bands are attached to the lid of the container so that the band must be torn or removed in order to open it. This added step can prevent malicious tampering as well as signal to the consumer that the ice cream is no longer safe to consume.
Another way that packaging can prevent food waste and loss is by extending shelf life. Spoilage is especially a concern for items like fresh produce and bread, which typically have short lifespans. As such, these types of foods require particular environments to maintain their quality and freshness long enough to be able to make it to the consumer.
Bread, for example, needs a low amount of oxygen to prevent it from moulding; whereas fresh produce, like cucumbers, need to have a mixture of different gases to maintain quality & freshness.
Food packaging such as Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP), is designed to create the right environment within the packaging of a food product so that it doesn’t spoil before it reaches the consumer. Using micro-perforation technology, MAP packaging controls the flow of gases in and out of the package to create the right atmosphere for the product.
Many of the types of packaging that help prevent food loss and waste utilize plastic materials. Although plastic has become a controversial topic in recent years, studies show that plastic is the most effective kind of packaging in reducing the rate of spoilage for foods with typically short lifespans.
For example, a recent Australian report found that shrink wrapped cucumber held a shelf life of nine days compared to an unwrapped cucumber which only lasted two days.
This is not to say that plastic packaging waste should be ignored, but that these issues require a more nuanced approach that takes these facts into account.
- “Food Loss and Food Waste” Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/
- “By the Numbers: Reducing Food Loss and Waste.” World Resources Institute, 28 Jan. 2020, www.wri.org/blog/2013/06/numbers-reducing-food-loss-and-waste
- “Food Waste in Canada.” Love Food Hate Waste Canada, lovefoodhatewaste.ca/about/food-waste/
- “Resources.” Australian Fresh Produce Alliance, http://freshproduce.org.au/resources/
- “How bad is Canada's food waste problem? Among the world's worst, report finds.” CBC, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-april-5-2018-1.4605392/how-bad-is-canada-s-food-waste-problem-among-the-world-s-worst-report-finds-1.4606012
- “Characterization and Management of Food Loss and Waste in North America." Commission for Environmental Cooperation, http://www3.cec.org/islandora/en/item/11772-characterization-and-management-food-loss-and-waste-in-north-america-en.pdf
- “Food Waste: Who Needs it Anyway?” https://eportfolios.macaulay.cuny.edu/koutavas3/background-info/
- “The Environmental Impact of Food Waste” Move For Hunger, https://www.moveforhunger.org/the-environmental-impact-of-food-waste
- “Food Loss vs. Waste: What’s the Difference?” https://guelphfoodwaste.com/2018/08/01/food-loss-vs-waste-whats-the-difference/
- “5 ways food waste is destroying our beautiful planet” New Food Magazine, https://www.newfoodmagazine.com/article/43551/five-ways-food-waste-environment/
- “How many kilometres do the foods in an average Canadian meal travel to get to your table?” Development and Peace, https://www.devp.org/en/sharelent/solidarity-calendar/food-transportation
- “Modified Atmosphere Packaging Applications” MOCON Europe A/S - Dansensor, https://www.modifiedatmospherepackaging.com/Applications.aspx