The food waste versus packaging waste conundrum

Written by Rui Braz

More than a million people fell sick every day from one of 200 diseases, from diarrhea to cancer, caused by unsafe food. 

World Food Safety Day, celebrated on June 7, was established by the United Nations to raise awareness of the importance of food safety and inspire actions that prevent, detect, and mitigate foodborne risks, contributing to food security, human health, economic prosperity, and sustainable development. Food safety refers to the handling, preparing, and storing of food in such a way as to reduce food-related health risks. From farm to table, food safety is a shared responsibility between producers, logistics and retail agents, supervising authorities, and consumers.  

This year’s theme for World Safety Day is “Food standards save lives”: the focus is on established international food safety practices and standards that ensure food safety and quality, and protect consumer health. 

Packaging plays a decisive role in this scenario, particularly in the context of elongated supply chains and/or highly perishable goods, helping not only enforce those food safety standards but also reduce food waste.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire 

Food waste occurs at every stage of the value chain, from production to transportation, storage to processing and/or cooking. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 30 percent of all food produced never reaches the plate. Not only is that food lost, but so are the resources used to produce it in the first place: an annual global value of 1 trillion USD per year. World hunger could be solved with no more than a quarter of all that is wasted, according to EAT, an international NGO platform for food system transformation. 

Although packaging, particularly single-use plastics with a lifespan ranging from mere minutes to hours or days, has been under fire in the last decade or so because of its environmental impact, the truth is packaging is indispensable to eliminate or minimize food waste during transportation and storage. Without modern packaging, food waste would be an even bigger problem. 

Environmental impact of waste is calculated as Global Warming Potential. Life cycle assessments of single-use plastics versus food waste show that the climate-change impacts of wasting food dwarf those of packaging: according to a study quoted by Helén Williams and Fredrik Wikström from Karlstad University, the climate impact of beef is a staggering 780 times higher than the impact of its packaging. Turns out food waste is a bigger environmental villain than package waste. 

In the words of Helén Williams, simply “reducing food packaging without analyzing the effects on food waste may create an environmental and social mess. Food and its packaging need to be considered as a unit”: designing packaging for a food product demands environmental impact assessment of both food waste and packaging waste. 

So yes, we could do without packaging where it is not required (looking at you, peeled orange in a styrofoam and plastic wrap single-use container). Where packaging is (much) needed, then apply the three Rs: reduce the amount of responsibly sourced materials that go into producing it, make it reusable when possible, and design for a sustainable end-of-life by improving recyclability. 

But we can go even further in our efforts to fight food waste, and that’s where smart packaging comes in.

Paper-based smart packaging solutions to enhance supply chain monitoring  

Traditional packaging has four major roles: protection, communication, convenience, and containment. Protection is regarded as the most important of these functions, especially if you consider that about two-thirds of food waste occurs while in transit from origin to market - and the number goes even higher when developing countries are considered. 

Smart packaging aims to fulfill all four roles and also provide near-real-time information regarding the whereabouts of the product, the conditions and freshness of the food, and the environment surrounding it. To achieve that, packaging is moving to embrace barcodes, QR codes, RFID tags, and other forms of electronic labels to effectively monitor products across the entire supply chain. Nevertheless, these forms of smart packaging bring their own issues: barcodes are insufficient for tracking individual packages and products, QR codes can easily be tampered with, and RFID tags - which contain traditional silicon-based chips - are expensive to produce, have to be sourced along elongated supply chains, and pose additional end-of-life problems as they hinder packaging recyclability and are a source of e-waste in themselves. 

AlmaScience’s paper-based printed electronics technology offers a sustainable, ultra-low-cost solution: locally printed chipless RFID tags that can be easily integrated into existing industrial packaging production and are compatible with recycling methods and capabilities already in place. Our technology not only allows packaging to carry information about the source of raw materials and production methods but can also integrate sensors providing the ability to detect environmental conditions - such as registering the highest temperature along a cold supply chain - and/or food decay - such as the presence of certain gases or microorganisms building up inside the package. This information is then relayed to different stations throughout the supply chain, such as trucks, planes, loading stations, logistical centers, and up to the point of sale. The information gathered helps increase food safety transparency and the overall efficiency of the supply chain, leading to lesser waste.

Beating the “best-before” dates 

Up to a third of all food waste occurs in the “last mile”, from the store and into the home of consumers, and some studies suggest that about 25% of this wasted food is directly or indirectly related to packaging-related issues, namely best-before dates that end up confusing consumers. 

Best-before dates are calculated by estimating environmental conditions for the entire lifetime of a product. Since these conditions can vary tremendously, producers are conservative about those dates: better gone to waste than causing diseases. Food past its best-before date is often safe to eat, but consumers rationally avoid buying food even approaching that date and, when a week later they find it in the back of a shelf inside their fridge, they might throw it away “just in case”. 

AlmaScience’s smart packaging technology can once again help alleviate these issues. Packaging with integrated printed chipless RFID tags and sensors for food freshness monitoring can lead to, in the short-term, smart retail operations with systems in place that talk to those packages to trigger, for instance, automated discounts for products approaching best-before or expiry dates, leading to more sales of otherwise written-off wasted food. Later, at the household, those same smart tags provide consumers with the assurance their food is still safe to eat, even past the estimated best-before date.

The Smart Paper Ecosystem: fighting waste all around 

The world population is projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, up from 7.6 billion today. According to FAO, we will need to produce 60% more food to feed that many people. That is going to put enormous pressure on the already stressed world’s agro-industrial system, with tremendous environmental impact associated. One way to increase the food available is not allowing the food we already produce to go to waste. As per the above, AlmaScience’s Smart Paper Ecosystem offers solutions to achieve exactly that. 

Our commitment to sustainability when it comes to the food system is two-fold. On one hand, turning traditional packaging into smart packaging means an exponential increase in short-lived electronic IoT devices that will end up as e-waste if silicon-based electronics are used. AlmaScience develops sustainable paper-based electronic devices and systems that enable a new generation of smart packaging and smart retail operations. On the other hand, these novel solutions enhance supply chain and inventory management in such a way that food is not thrown away without a valid reason.

Do you want to join the Smart Paper Ecosystem? 
To learn more, please contact: 

Dr. Yoni Engel
Business Development Manager

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