While the modern food industry has always concerned itself with maintaining food safety and quality, the moral imperative of feeding a rapidly growing population, combined with a maturing recognition of the bio-physical planetary limits within which this food must be supplied, has brought acute focus to the problem of food waste. Food packaging has long served a role in protecting and preserving both perishable and shelf-stable foods, but sustainability efforts aimed at reducing the environmental impact of packaging often overlook this critical role. Life cycle assessment of food products typically indicate that the contribution to important environmental indicators from the manufacturing and disposing of packaging materials is often overshadowed by the impacts of producing the food itself. In addition, wasted food –that which is produced but not eaten – can represent a significant fraction of the overall system environmental burden. This presents an important research question: can investments in resources and associated emissions due to increased or improved packaging technologies be justified from an environmental standpoint if they contribute to reductions in food waste? Where do the trade-offs in this relationship occur, and what are the determining parameters? Can such trade-offs be demonstrated with existing food-packaging systems, and what do they teach us about the future role of packaging in further deterring food waste?
These are the questions to be explored in this research project titled “Life Cycle Assessment of Food Packaging and Waste.” In this Phase 1 report, we set the stage for the project with a literature review of relevant areas, an outlining of methodological approaches, and a description of the case studies to be investigated in Phase 2.
The remainder of the report proceeds as follows: the literature review establishes the area of research by first highlighting life cycle assessment efforts to quantify the environmental impacts of food production (Section 2.1), then detailing the case for concern with food waste in Section 2.2. The review then turns to life cycle assessment studies of packaging materials and systems as well as emerging sustainability efforts in food packaging (Section 2.3). This leads to the role that packaging plays in reducing food waste in Section 2.4. Finally the literature review culminates with an acknowledgement of the need to consider both food product and package as a whole system in Section 2.5, summarizing the knowledge to date of the environmental tradeIoff between food waste and food packaging. Section 3 provides further detail of the methodological approach that will be used in the Phase 2 study of the cases described in Section 4.