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 typically do not address this critical role directly. There is growing concern, from both an environmental and social perspective, with wasted food, and this wasted food often represents a significant contribution to the overall environmental footprint of food products. This project uses life cycle assessment of complete food product chains to explore the environmental trade-offs between food packaging and food waste. Through case studies, we identify examples where increased or improved packaging configurations result in lower retail-level food waste and reduced full-system environmental impacts.
Building on a thorough review of the literature presented in our Phase 1 report, and augmented in this Phase 2 report, we developed a life cycle model capable of evaluating the cradle-to-grave impacts of particular foods. The scope of the life cycle model includes agricultural production, processing, packaging, transport to retail, retail energy use, transport to home, and home refrigeration. It also accounts for food and packaging waste and disposal at retail and consumer levels. The model was used to investigate three cases: beef, romaine lettuce, and ground turkey. Multiple packaging configurations are compared in each case. Retail-level waste rates were gathered from a retail partner. Global warming potential (greenhouse gas emissions) and cumulative energy use are the focal environmental impact categories, although blue water use is also evaluated in one case.
Results vary across the cases examined. We present three scenarios (beef case 1a, 1c & turkey case 3) where the use of optimized packaging correlates with lower retail-level food waste rates. Two of the three offer situations where, when a packaging change leads to reduced food waste, the reduction in GHGE due to lower waste is sufficient to offset the increase in emissions due to changes in packaging, but this type of “break-even” point is NOT reached with respect to cumulative energy demand. Other presented scenarios, namely beef 1b and lettuce (case 2), demonstrate that more advanced packaging options do not always lead to lower waste rates, although it could be argued that these cases compare products with different qualities to the consumer.