Scrutiny of food packaging environmental impacts has led to a variety of sustainability directives, but has largely focused on the direct impacts of materials. A growing awareness of the impacts of food waste warrants a recalibration of packaging environmental assessment to include the indirect effects due to influences on food waste. In this study, we model 13 food products and their typical packaging formats through a consistent life cycle assessment framework in order to demonstrate the effect of food waste on overall system greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and cumulative energy demand (CED). Starting with food waste rate estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we calculate the effect on GHG emissions and CED of a hypothetical 10% decrease in food waste rate. This defines a limit for increases in packaging impacts from innovative packaging solutions that will still lead to net system environmental benefits. The ratio of food production to packaging production environmental impact provides a guide to predicting food waste effects on system performance. Based on a survey of the food LCA literature, this ratio for GHG emissions ranges from 0.06 (wine example) to 780 (beef example). High ratios with foods such as cereals, dairy, seafood, and meats suggest greater opportunity for net impact reductions through packaging‐based food waste reduction innovations. While this study is not intended to provide definitive LCAs for the product/package systems modeled, it does illustrate both the importance of considering food waste when comparing packaging alternatives, and the potential for using packaging to reduce overall system impacts by reducing food waste.
Journal of Industrial Ecology