How making packaging work harder can help us win the war on waste

* 3 min read

The statistics around global food and drink waste are staggering. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.

In Europe alone the food currently wasted could feed 200 million people. The figures are no less troubling in the UK – where we throw away seven million tonnes of food and drink from our homes every year.

With the ambitious targets put forward by the Courtauld Commitment 2025 this week, we want to show where packaging comes into the equation. Like the product itself, the way the items we buy are packaged represents a crucial intersection between retailer and consumer.

Ultimately, packaging is designed to protect and preserve, so it plays a massive part in whether food ends up being wasted or used. To bring about the key goals set out by Courtauld 2025 the packaging industry will respond around several specific areas:

1. Shelf life awareness

First off, the industry already does a fairly good job of helping items last longer. A simple example is the humble cucumber. Without its plastic wrapping, its shelf-life would be reduced by 3-5 days. We take for granted that the items we buy each day remain fresh and edible because of the packaging designs that sustain them.

Going forward we’ll see the rise of two things: intelligent packaging with chemical indicators to alert us to approaching use-by dates; and more effective information on-pack. As the carrier of the product, packaging is the main mechanism to communicate to the consumer. Now more than ever, retailers will have to ensure that they’re using the most clear and powerful methods in order to educate consumers and avoid waste.   

Shrinkwrapped cucumber

2. More responsible designs

Inefficient designs encourage waste, so it’s crucial that packaging is designed in a way to ensure customers get more value from the food they buy. One way to achieve this is through the proliferation of refills and concentrates. Both offer a sensible, responsible way to give consumers more product while also reducing the amount of packaging used.

Robinson’s Squash’d is a case-in-point. Customers tend to overuse the traditional bottle concentrate, thereby reducing its cost-effectiveness, whereas Squash’d delivers exactly the right amount of product. The same principle goes for refills. It’s far more economical to buy a container to refill from a larger one than continually rebuying smaller containers. One of the best ways to reduce waste is to cut out packaging altogether. Ideally customers should only purchase what they need.

packshots 3 form

3. A greater focus on portion size

According to Love Food Hate Waste, the main reasons we throw away good food are through either preparing too much or not using food in time. Packaging design can’t help what consumers do with the food they cook from scratch, but with the ubiquity of ready meals, packaging formats more attuned to our lifestyles can really make a difference.

Thirty-six percent of Brits now live in single households, so more ready meals need to reflect this and portion control can have a powerful effect. Resealables go a long way in solving this problem but there are other more forward-thinking designs emerging too. For example, we’ve no doubt all come across an old, soggy bag of salad in the back of our fridge. Enter salad packs designed in two halves with separate portions, thereby extending the life of the pack.

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Given the global issues of food waste, the packaging industry is doing its bit to stand out and be counted – but of course we can do more. The new Courtauld Commitment is a signpost to what will hopefully be a brighter, more responsible future.