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3 Easy Concepts for Sustainable Packaging to Reduce Food Waste

Images credit: reboot innovation

Packaging waste, especially plastics, is the sustainability issue of our time, driven by growing public and media attention. Yet just two years ago, we were talking about food waste and one overlapping yet unresolved question is the role that packaging must play in protecting and preserving food.

Today’s sustainable packaging debate has quickly become polarised: Industry argues that packaging has a crucial role in protecting products, with FDF/INCPEN highlighting that the product inside the pack uses on average ten times more resources and energy than the packaging itself. This explains why we counterintuitively shrink-wrap a cucumber. Yet Friends of the Earth has counter-argued that the rise in plastic packaging has done nothing to curb Europe’s food waste problem. The UK’s 2 million tons of plastic packaging used per annum has done little to dent the 7 million tons of food households waste domestically every year. Which way should a packaging designer turn on all this?

As with most complex problems, the answer lies somewhere in between. It is imperative to reduce packaging and food waste, plus we must design packaging to better reduce wasted food. This latter point is an important one; it is not enough for brands and manufacturers to claim that the simple existence of packaging does enough to tackle food waste — the packaging industry must measurably and systematically help turn the tables on food waste, showing what environmentalists call ‘additionality.’ This may not be happening yet, but with some creativity and new thinking, maybe it could.

Redesigning packaging against food waste

Working at the cutting edge of sustainable innovation and design, this is exactly the kind of creative brief we love. So we kicked off a thought leadership experiment by asking ourselves: ‘How could we redesign packaging to reduce food waste?’ The remainder of this blog presents our thinking and results from this creative exercise.

We began by defining three simple ways that packaging design can reduce food waste:

  • Preservation: Packaging that means food will stay fresher for longer
  • Portion control: Packaging that helps people to prepare, cook and eat the right amount
  • Reuse: Packaging that promotes creative uses for leftover food

This means extending today’s interpretations of sustainable packaging to include what the pack does, as well as what it is, seeing the potential for packaging to do more good, rather than simply be less bad. We applied these three strategies to some of the UK’s most commonly wasted everyday foods — rice, bread and bananas. This inspired three new packaging concepts — ‘pack-cepts’ — that illustrate the argument and the opportunity below:

Bread waste becomes toast

A drawstring mechanism could replace bread tags and help keep loaves fresher for longer.

Food Waste Issue: The average UK sliced loaf has a carbon footprint of around 1kg, while the plastic (PE/PP) wrapper’s footprint can be as little as 8g — illustrating our point well. Bread is believed to be the UK’s most wasted food; we throw away a staggering 24 million slices of bread every day even though an average loaf, properly stored, can last up to seven days.

Packaging Solution: This design features an easy-to-close draw-string mechanism, helping keep bread fresher for longer. It replaces the ineffective plastic tags used on bread packaging today, that frequently gets lost or lose their stickiness. The pack design could easily be made from bioplastic film and has the added advantage of being fully collectable at local film recycling facilities, with no tag littering.

Against the grain on rice waste

Printed markings on bags of rice could help consumers measure portions.

Food Waste Issue: Cooked rice frequently goes to waste, with the UK estimated to throw away more than 40,000 tons of rice every year. Often this is because people unknowingly cook too much in the first place.

Packaging Solution: This pack-cept uses the current packaging format, with printed markings down the side to help consumers cook the right quantity for their meal. Importantly, this communicates portion size — 90g is your guideline daily amount, which is 11 servings per 500g pack — rather than grams, which no one relates to their cooking. This could be easily implemented with minimal disruption to the packaging supply chain.

Ripe for a packaging redesign

Print-on labels for bananas could encourage consumers to use them when they're starting to brown.

Food Waste Issues: We may spend £500 million on bananas in the UK each year, yet we waste a whopping 1.4 million every day, with them often being rejected by consumers for the slightest bruise or blemish.

Packaging Solution: This simple print-on label design encourages consumers to creatively reuse bananas - turning them into a delicious smoothie — with the yellow ‘nudge’ message becoming visible as the banana ripens and turns brown. This could be made from, for example, a wax print or else laser printing label technology used on avocados.

All these pack-cepts could be simply and cost effectively implemented with minimal technical disruption, plus they have consumer benefits built in. They could also be eco-designed with sustainable materials, recyclability or other traditional aspects of sustainable packaging, too.

Reduce packaging or tackle food waste: Why not both?

We must not forget the incredible potential for sustainable packaging to reduce food waste and other product losses; indeed, sustainable packaging design must amplify and enable this. This is not a diversion from today’s essential reduction and elimination work; it’s a complement to it. We need a joined-up conversation and we need fresh thinking on these mammoth challenges.

These pack-cepts could be just a start, as we believe there are amazing creative and commercial opportunities here. We think brands and manufacturers can do much, much more — and welcome the chance to work with others to redesign packaging against food waste.

Chris Sherwin is Director at reboot innovation, a consultancy on a mission to change what and how we innovate - making them fit for a sustainable world [Read more about Chris Sherwin]

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