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Packaging: the unacknowledged ‘good guy’

Date: 12/11/2013 | Author: Jane Bickerstaffe

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INCPEN director Jane Bickerstaffe says we should recognise the benefits of packaging in the supply chain

Food waste is a huge environmental problem in developed countries, and an environmental disaster in developing ones.  It’s a criminal waste of precious resources. Globally we currently grow enough food to feed everyone. The problem is that globally up to 50 per cent of food is wasted.

Why? In developing countries it is usually because the infrastructure has not been developed: poor roads, inadequate vehicles and a lack of packaging make it difficult to get food from producer to consumer in good condition. 

In developed countries, with efficient food supply chains, good roads and technologically advanced distribution and packaging systems, comparatively little food is wasted en route to the retailer. Recent INCPEN research highlighted which foods are wasted at the retail stage (bananas, bread and milk topped the list), and the three major supermarkets who participated in that research are already working on ways to reduce it.

Once food leaves the shop, it’s down to the consumer to handle it carefully, store it appropriately and use it in time. But lots of research shows that consumers throw away surprisingly high amounts of the food they buy: UK households waste 4.2 million tonnes of food a year, according to WRAP.

Given that there are a variety of reasons for food being wasted, you would expect there to be a number of solutions, and there are – but there’s one solution common to many situations: packaging.

Unfortunately, far from being acknowledged as an essential and beneficial part of getting food (and other goods) to us in a safe, clean and undamaged state, packaging is widely derided and criticised. And yet without packaging, many times more food would be wasted. Packaging is inherently a waste avoidance and prevention measure.  

Packaging is not an evil waste of resources, it is the good guy.

A few grammes of plastic or card ensures that tomatoes, chicken breasts, peaches and meringues are not crushed, bruised, dirty or dangerous to eat. It protects food on its journey from farm or factory through mechanical handling and bumpy transport, and being stacked ten high in a warehouse.  It keeps flies from laying eggs and rats from gnawing on your food.

And it doesn’t just avoid food being wasted, it also enables consumers to choose from an ever-widening range of foods, in sizes suitable for their needs, and to live a life style where most people go out to work, shopping is done in a single weekly trip to the supermarket rather than on a daily basis, and convenience foods are relied upon to feed families. 

“When I was young there wasn’t all this packaging!” is a frequent accusation. Agreed. But unless you are 12 years old, the way we eat in the western world has changed dramatically in your lifetime. We consume millions of items like ready-made bread and pizzas. In previous generations, everyone made their own pies and cakes at home, where today ready-made versions are a staple purchase. Likewise soup.

Our ordinary diet now includes fruit and vegetables not grown in the UK, like mangoes, as well as the less exotic staple foods like tea, coffee and rice. How could we have all those without packaging? 

The science behind the apparently simple pack which protects your food (and incidentally also provides storage and cooking instructions, information on ingredients, fat and salt levels) is extensive. Experience of under-packaged goods shows that using too little protection results in much more waste. But using too much packaging wastes resources and costs businesses money, so fine judgement is needed and a great deal of research goes into each packaging type. 

Another small way in which packaging reduces waste is that waste from centrally prepared foods (eg the outer leaves of cauliflower and cheese rind in the case of cauliflower cheese) arises at a factory in sufficient quantities to allow it to be sold on for animal feed, while trimmings from home-prepared foods are taken out of the food chain. Home composting may be better than sending food waste to landfill, but the energy, water and other resources that went into making that food are still wasted.

I refuse to apologise for packaging.There are a few examples of unnecessary packaging and INCPEN is the first to criticise them. But the overwhelming majority is appropriate, and the minimum to perform the many jobs required of it. Much of our day to day life relies on packaging. It would be good if that was recognised.




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