Food, packaging and climate change

Climate change won’t go away. Therefore food manufacturers must start considering innovative ways to reduce food waste and become more resource efficient. Gareth Reynolds writes.

Consider this. For every bag of groceries you buy this year, you will most likely throw one in five of them in the bin.

It sounds ludicrous, but with the average Australian household now wasting around $1,036 worth of groceries each year, it is an all too ­prevalent reality that is often ignored.

While many will shake their head at how much hard earned money Australian families are throwing away, the scale of food waste and the resultant environmental impact should be just as baffling.

When food is wasted the vast majority of it ends up in landfill, where it rots and releases harmful methane gases into the atmosphere. The impact of this is greater than most think because the energy and resources used to harvest, process, warehouse and distribute this food are also wasted. 

Of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions, 23 per cent comes from our food supply chain – second only to coal fired power stations.

Waste not, want not

According to the NSW Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report published in 2012, a whopping 74 per cent of food is wasted before it even has a chance to be sold.

This is largely due to labelling issues, supply chain inefficiencies, lack of stock rotation, inadequate refrigeration, with consumers playing their part too by not understanding the difference between “use by” and “sell by” dates.

Strictly from a business stance, avoiding waste makes sense. It saves money, reduces environmental impact and can build brand recognition.

Like most things however, the devil is in the detail, and in many cases reducing waste can seem challenging.

That being said, there are a number of things food manufacturers can do to help reduce their waste profile.

Use your supply chain for good

In recent years, supply chains have taken centre stage in the move towards a more environmental and socially responsible society. The 2013 United Nations Global Compact Corporate Sustainability Report found that companies are increasingly talking about supply chain sustainability. It is here, deep within the supply chain, where food manufacturers can start taking a stand against waste and the resultant social and environmental impacts.

By starting with the traditional measurements of cost and performance and then looking beyond them to consider the entire value chain – including sourcing, distribution, usage and recycling – manufacturers can address social and environmental challenges without sacrificing cost competitiveness or performance.

Through this process, food manufacturers should be able to make smarter, more informed choices that consider the entire product lifecycle and reduce overall environmental and social impacts, while also ensuring economic viability. 

Embrace technology

In any discussion about climate change, it is unfortunate that packaging is often considered part of the problem rather than the solution. Technological advances mean packaging can now be in the vanguard in the fight against waste. 

For example, packaging that uses vacuum and oxygen scavenging technology has been found to increase product quality and shelf life by reducing oxidation and the resultant degradation of many food products.

Ensuring a clean environment in food processing rooms should also be a first priority, as processing hygiene has a critical impact on shelf life.

From a food manufacturing perspective, another simple way to help reduce food waste is by ensuring your product labelling is clearly defined so consumers know exactly how to store their food and when to consume it by.

Find a good partner

For those food manufactures not in a position to radically overhaul their supply chain, or take on the latest technologies, there are still ways in which to reduce the amount of food ending up in landfill.

For example, some food is discarded because it is considered unavoidable waste that cannot be sold or eaten. Vegetable peel, egg shells and animal bones are a perfect example. Many of these by-products end up in landfill but, through the right partnerships, there are ways for reuse. As an example, animal bones could be further processed to produce liquid beef stock or processed to feed livestock and animals.

Another way we can become more food savvy is through partnerships with food recovery organisations such as FareShare, OzHarvest and FoodBank. These charities collect excess food from commercial outlets and deliver it free of charge to the needy across the country.

FareShare alone provided nearly 900,000 free meals last year from food that would otherwise have ended up in landfill.

For companies unsure how to reduce their food waste, turning it into something that benefits disadvantaged parts of the community.

[Gareth Reynolds is Executive Director of Marketing ANZ Food Care, Sealed Air]