Originally published May 17th 2022, written by Woodly’s blog guest Juha-Matti Katajajuuri (specialist, National Resource Institute Finland/Luke)
The function of food packaging is to protect food in the logistic chain, in stores and in households and therefore enables the food to be eaten. This is the most important requirement for packaging, whether we consider it from the perspective of the environment, the economy, the consumer or society. “Sustainable” packaging eliminates food waste, and thereby reduces unnecessary food production. Food waste significantly – and unnecessarily – increases the environmental impact and costs of food, specifically through the production of unnecessary food.
If even one small slice of ham from the package remains uneaten, the environmental impact of producing unnecessary ham is at the same level or greater than the environmental impact of the production and utilization and waste management of the entire package.
At Luke, we extensively research the food system and its environmental footprint and its reduction, both from the point of view of production and consumption as well as the circular economy. Food waste is one of the key areas related to this and in fact one of the most unnecessary factors hindering a sustainable food system. We are currently updating the road map aimed at reducing food waste created in the Food Waste Monitoring and CircWaste projects. Good, functional, durable packaging produced with as little environmental impact as possible is one part of the solution.
In order to be able to truly compare the environmental performance of different packaging options, we must be able to simultaneously assess the product’s protectiveness, including its potential as a food waste preventer, as well as the comparably determining environmental effects of the packaging system itself. In this case, the various environmental footprints of the packaging materials, the environmental footprints caused by recycling and waste management, as well as the environmental footprint savings achieved through the beneficial use of packaging, without forgetting biodegradability and littering and the resulting environmental effects, as well as the product itself and food waste, are naturally included as part of the examination.
Both fossil-based and bio-based plastics and other materials such as fibres, metals and glass must be evaluated through the same sustainability template. The challenge is quite big and science is currently trying to solve this tangle piece by piece. On the one hand, there is a need for concordant environmental footprint guidelines for comparing packages, and then for factual information about the different stages and processes of the chain, as well as information about food waste in different situations, including in households.
Increasing consumer understanding
In an ideal situation, in the future, consumers would have information about the actual and science-based total environmental footprint of different packaging options. In this case, it could be built by a product group. The need has been recorded e.g. in the national plastic road map for replacement materials and the Packaging Sustainability SCORE concept built on this logic has also been included in the extensive Finnish PlastLife application. We are waiting for the results of the search and the possible start of the work by the end of 2022 with our joint partners. As far as possible, the Commission’s PEF guideline would serve as the basis for the environmental footprint calculation method applied to packaging. Nationally, these calculation and evaluation methods are developed and harmonized at LUKE in several projects, for example, the LCAFoodPrint project, but a methodology tailored to packages would be part of this new wide opening, a direct continuation of the current PackageHeroes work.
Based on all of this, packaging environmental claims are a very interesting and challenging topic, and that is why we are currently organizing a roundtable event on the matter. Although we don’t have answers to everything yet, we hope that there will be a social discussion about the matter. It is important that the companies in the industry understand this broad entity thoroughly. On the one hand, one should recognize the possibilities of life cycle and carbon footprint assessment in the development of sustainable packaging options and as a basis for environmental claims, but it is also necessary to be aware of the challenges associated with these.
Juha-Matti Katajajuuri is a long-term researcher and expert in sustainable and responsible research and consumption, who specializes in the carbon footprint and ecological sustainability of special food systems, packaging, circular economy and food waste. He works at Finland’s National Resource Institute Luke in close cooperation with companies in the field as a customer manager and specialist researcher.