Food packaging exists for many reasons, but it no doubt plays a vital role in the sustainability of the food system. Cath Cornaggia from Avery Dennison looks at the challenges and opportunities being faced by this critical industry.
Packaging provides a protective barrier that helps prevent physical damage, contamination, and spoilage of food during transportation, storage, and handling. By keeping food products safe and intact, packaging reduces the likelihood of food waste, which is a significant contributor to environmental degradation.
Proper packaging techniques and materials can also extend the shelf life of perishable food items. This helps reduce food waste by maintaining the freshness, quality, and nutritional value of the food for a longer period. Packaging technologies such as vacuum sealing, modified atmosphere packaging, and antimicrobial films create optimal conditions for food preservation.
However, the impact of packaging on the environment and resources used in its production, disposal and recycling is a significant concern that cannot be overlooked. As consumers, we dispose of tonnes of food packaging materials each year. It’s been reported that Australians discard around 1.9 million tonnes of packaging each year – enough to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground nine times over.
Food packaging waste that isn’t recycled or composted is typically landfilled or incinerated, both contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. While recycling can mitigate some of the environmental impacts of packaging, it faces several challenges too. Not all packaging materials are easily recyclable, and contamination of recyclable materials reduces their value and recyclability. Limited recycling infrastructure, lack of consumer awareness, and inefficient collection and sorting systems also hinder effective recycling. A survey by WWF-Australia of some of Australia’s favourite food products has found more than 80 per cent feature packaging that cannot be put into home recycling bins.
So how do we then think about minimising the use of food packaging and move to a more sustainable way to package our goods? For businesses, it’s always wise to have something to work towards. For a start, the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation has established ambitious 2025 National Packaging Targets, which include:
- 100% of packaging being reusable, recyclable, or compostable;
- 70% of plastic packaging being recycled or composted;
- 50% of average recycled content included in packaging; and
- the phase out of problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging
To create a sustainable food system, simply put, packaging must be designed to minimise its environmental impact while still effectively protecting the food.
- Always the best option: Ditch single-use packaging and choose from a broad range of sustainable paper and film labels – including materials that are recycled, enable recycling or are made from organic waste, such as papers made with 100% recycled fibres.
- Fresher for longer: Take advantage of the latest research and development into improved packaging barrier technology. An example is the introduction of a PVDC-free OXYB (oxygen barrier) reclosure label by Avery Dennison, in partnership with Jindal Films – the first product of its kind for food applications where it can improve recyclability and minimise waste. Oxygen exposure is the biggest challenge for extending shelf life, as it can cause discolouration and encourage bacteria growth that leads to rancidity. Since the new label construction (which includes the face and adhesive) is approved for direct contact with dry, moist and fatty foods, everything from basil to ham will stay tasty for longer.
- Improve recyclability: Create monomaterial packaging that helps to tackle the recycling challenge, without compromising on functionality or quality. Standard polypropylene and polyethylene labels enable packages of like polymers to maintain monomateriality for recycling, making it a relatively easy solution for brands.
- Reduce food waste: Use RFID inlays to create, implement and maintain systems that decrease the amount of food you waste during processing. Over time, the data collected through RFID-enabled supply chains will enable producers to optimise the food supply for demonstrated demand. They can also go a long way towards eliminating waste by using RFID-tagged products to get a more accurate picture of their inventories, monitor food temperatures and better manage expiry to keep food from spoiling.
While there is a growing recognition of the need for sustainable food packaging, we do acknowledge that several challenges exist in creating and implementing such packaging solutions. For example, sustainable packaging solutions can sometimes be more expensive or perceived to be than conventional options. Higher costs can pose challenges for food producers, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, who may face financial constraints in adopting sustainable packaging. The global nature of food supply chains also adds complexity to implementing sustainable packaging solutions. But most importantly, sustainable packaging must effectively protect food, maintain its quality, and meet stringent food safety standards.
Addressing these concerns is not easy, but achievable if you understand the importance packaging plays in the entire ecosystem. It requires a holistic approach involving various stakeholders such as packaging manufacturers, food producers, policymakers, and consumers. Promoting sustainable packaging alternatives, reducing packaging waste, improving recycling infrastructure, and encouraging responsible consumer behaviour are some basic crucial steps in minimising the environmental impact of packaging.
Transitioning to renewable and recyclable materials, promoting innovative packaging designs, and implementing extended producer responsibility programmes can all contribute to creating a more sustainable packaging system.
Cath Cornaggia is the commercial director, Labels & Packaging (ANZ), at Avery Dennison.