While much of the recent discussion around sustainability in packaging has focused on the negative impact plastic waste has on the environment, there is another important talk that needs to be had: the role packaging plays in reducing food waste. And this was broached at the recent AIP '2025 and beyond' conference on 28-29 March.
Liz Goodwin, director food loss and waste, world resources institute, joined the conference by video link from the UK, where she began with some sobering statistics. A third of all food produced, or more than a billion tonnes, is wasted. This amounts to a quarter of the world’s food supply of calories. Eight per cent of carbon emissions comes from wasted food. A quarter of all water and fertiliser used in agriculture goes to waste. Meanwhile, a ninth of the global population is malnourished.
Goodwin summed it all up by saying, “it’s bad for the economy, it’s bad for farmer’s incomes, it’s bad for supply chain incomes, it puts pressure on resources, it’s bad for the climate and it’s bad for society.”
The causes, she went on to say, are complex and include technological, managerial, logistical and more. The main cause is a lack of taking a whole of system approach.
Goodwin feels that the role of packaging is crucial in tackling these issues and advised companies to “set a target that shows ambition,” and then measure the progress, as that is crucial to driving strong action.
Her institute produces an annual report called Champion 4.3, and the current one states that progress is not being made fast enough to tackle the issue of food waste. According to the report, businesses have made progress, retailers have set targets, but distributors and suppliers have fallen behind.
Brianna Casey, CEO of Foodbank Australia, followed on from Goodwin and gave an Australian context to the audience. According to her, Australia produces enough food to feed the population three times over, but at the same time, 1.2 million Australians are going hungry. More than half of these people are ones who have a job, “that’s people living in your neighbourhood”, she said, adding that many are too embarrassed to seek help. Foodbank is assisting more than one million people a month, and in the last five years has had to increase the volume of food and personal care items distributed. Of the 7.6 tonnes of food wasted annually, 70 per cent of that is edible.
One thing that Foodbank does is rescue large volumes of food that may be imperfect or damaged and distribute it to those who need it. Farmers and other producers are also donating.
Casey told the audience that there is a place for packaging to be a part of this. Packaging can be used by companies to tell the story of how they are helping Food Bank. “Imagine if we could capture half the attention that soft plastics gets,” she said, alluding to a comment made by her colleague, Brooke Donnelly, general manager Sustainability of Coles Group, who presented directly afterwards.
Donnelly talked about the intersection between packaging and food waste and said that we need to consider where plastic sits in this. According to Coles surveys on customers’ biggest sustainability concerns, food waste and landfill sat second after plastic bags and packaging.
Donnelly cited the example of soft plastics to demonstrate the importance of collaboration and said that food waste needs it just as much. “We can’t do this alone, even our big numbers are nothing compared to the scale of the problem,” she said.
Bringing the conversation back to reducing plastic waste, she outlined some of Cole’s strategies, such as removing unnecessary single use plastics from its own brand products, not creating give away plastic toys and offering reusable mesh bags for fruit and vegetables. She claimed that Coles has saved 1.5 million kilograms of plastic by not offering single-use tableware and saved 2000 tonnes of virgin plastic by using 100 per cent recycled packaging for its bakery range.