Tackling food loss and waste with bio-based packaging

Why is bio-based packaging important in food security? What are the bio-based packaging solutions to reduce food loss and waste?  

©inhabit.comAt the Interpack 2014 Special Event (Messe Düsseldorf, 9 May) the FAO Forestry Department and partners presented a draft White Paper to seek answers to these questions.  Green solutions in reducing loss and waste in food and packaging chains in a more locally-inclusive and sustainable manner were discussed.

Key messages

  1. 30% waste and loss of global food production is equivalent to a daily breakfast (in calorific terms) for 7.30 billion people for every day of the year.
  2. Many of the high-population emerging economies produce both petroleum and fibre from wood and other plants and residues, but are often not producing packaging material from either, leading to high import costs.
  3. Three main trends in packaging development are: bio-packaging, high-performance materials, and intelligent/functional packaging. Often these trends can merge into enhanced bio-packaging, supporting its gradual mainstreaming (through e.g. bio-replacement/drop-in bio-plastics).
  4. Further case studies on food and bio-packaging chains should identify the trade-offs between various value chain actors, so as to improve the data on costs of food loss and waste, and quantify bio-packaging benefits.
  5. An international coalition will establish further evidence on how the improved application of bio-based packaging can help reduce food loss and waste in an environmentally and socially friendly manner (through green and inclusive food and bio-packaging chains).
  6. Adjusting technologies and bio-packaging products for local raw materials and traditions is necessary; e.g. seek to develop a “modernized African bio-packaging” for food.

To date, approximately 50 potential parties have been informed about the Coalition and Roadmap. The Coalition will be convened by the FAO, according to established United Nations mechanisms and rules on partnerships with the private sector and launched at the World Forestry Congress in September 2015.

International Coalition

Intelligent packaging: carton changes colour with expiry date © ICFPAThe initiative to establish an International Coalition on“Bio-based Packaging – a Green Food Saver” has three specific objectives:

  1. To establish evidence on how the better application of bio-based packaging can help reducing food loss and waste in an environmentally and socially friendly manner (through green and inclusive food and bio-packaging chains).
  2. To promote bio-based packaging on a corporate and consumer group levels as a function for sustainable development, and as a locally growing, biomass-based alternative to non-renewable packaging materials for food.
  3. To establish multi-stakeholder partnerships for mainstreaming bio-based packaging in some of the key food value chains of the world, and an International Coalition for further coordination and collaboration in this field.

These objectives are fully aligned with, for example, the European Commission’s target to reduce food loss by 50% by 2030, as well as with the Millenium Development Goals (MDG) 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability and MDG 8: Global Partnerships for Development, which are coming to a close this year. Objectives are also supporting the formulation of the up-coming Sustainability Development Goals after 2015.

Roadmap for building the Coalition

  1. Finalize White Paper for initial stakeholder consultation
  2. Decide on case studies (food segments, entry points, countries)
  3. Launch a working platform and working group(s): set up working agenda
  4. Decide on rules and procedures, commitments
  5. Formulate partnership agreements and financing strategy
  6. Set up an onternational Public-Private Coalition
  7. Conference at Milan Expo 2015: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”
  8. Launch at 14th World Forestry Congress Private Sector Forum, Durban, 10 September 2015

Main conclusions from the White Paper and group discussion

1. The ideal of circular (closed) loop economy has become an environmental and economic priority in the transition towards bio-economy.

2. In the field of food packaging this means that materials that are made from recyclable biological material such as paper and carton are used, and search continues for new bio-based materials that can be composted or recycled.

3. Sub-optimization of a particular aspect of bio-packaging of food is to be avoided, and instead bio-packaging should be analyzed as a chain of economically, socially and environmentally motivated actions from raw material extraction, processing, and distribution to use and recycling.

4. Packaging solutions with a locally adapted small-scale technology, using local materials, are most sustainable in smallerdeveloping and emerging markets.

5.Novel bio-packaging materials from large-scale biorefinery investmentsare starting to change foodpackaging in largeremerging and developed markets.

6. The three main trends in packaging development are bio-packaging, high-performance materials, intelligent / functional packaging.

7. Bio-based packaging consists of two industry value chains: large-scale manufacture of fiber-based packaging products; and emergent manufacturing of bioplastics. These two value chains also often meet, e.g. in liquid packaging cartons.

8. The fiber packaging is reinventing itself with lighter weight and innovative applications like moldable webs, bio-based barrier coatings and foamed fibers.

9. The bioplastics industry is growing rapidly, and it involves the entry of new actors and forming of new value chainpartnerships. It is starting to penetrate the packaging industry with improved performance and price competitiveness.

10. Bio-packaging is a fact-driven field, where value chain actors are making decisions based on their business realities. Collaborative efforts are therefore needed for refining commonly recognized facts to best ways forward and further to business possibilities.

11. Hot spots of global food wasteare e.g. in (a)cereals in Asia; (b) meat in high income regions and Latin America; (c) fruit in Asia, Latin America, and Europe; and (d) vegetables in industrialized Asia, Europe, South/South-East Asia.

12. Further case studies on food and bio-packaging chain improvements should be identified among existing players operating on these areas. There are huge differences between regions e.g. in harvesting and pre-processing losses. Data on costs of food losses and bio-packaging benefits is inadequate.

Relevance of bio-based packaging to FAO’s Strategic Objectives

Of the FAO’s Strategic Objectives, the SO2 Make agriculture, forestry and fisheries more productive and sustainable; and SO4 Enable inclusive and efficient agricultural and food systems are particularly relevant to food packaging produced from renewable bio-based materials, such as wood and other plant fibers and their residues. Work on improving local post-harvest processing of crops closer to the source, and creating supply chains synergies with local bio-packaging contributes to local livelihoods and helps reducing poverty. Appropriately packaged food is safer to consumers, it can be better portioned in retail shelves for any market, and it will be consumed to a fuller extent with less waste. Also brand owners appreciate sustainable packaging solutions for brand recognition and consumer appreciation.

Many of the emerging economies produce both petroleum and biomass; the latter containing fibers from wood and other plants and residues. But they are not often producing packaging material from either of these raw materials. Hence there is an import substitution potential, provided that feasible technology and business model can be found for domestic packaging material production for food industry and retail. A strong demonstration (case studies) is needed on the positive impacts on sustainable development and on direct business benefits from improved bio-based packaging (social, environmental, economic, food security).

Optimizing supply chain efficiency supports sustainable development

The global food and packaging value chains tend to be long and relatively complex, but yet more farmers and consumers in the developing countries become engaged as suppliers and customers, respectively. Inducing behavioral and performance changes among the food value chain actors from the farm to the fork is a challenging task. Optimizing bio-packaging requires also perceptional shift on what makes a food chains sustainable. Their association with the global food loss and waste is a multi-faceted challenge that requires systemic thinking and involves trade-offs between partners.

From this background it is easy to reason that stronger symbiotic relationships between the actors in the food and packaging supply chains are necessary to optimize our production and consumption patterns, from the farm to the fork. It is a shared interest of the agriculture and food industry, paper and board industry, as well as the science and research community working on enhanced bio-packaging, to make the food chains more sustainable and less wasteful at all stages. Government regulatory bodies and NGOs will help steering best practices and consumer sentiment to package and consume our food and related natural resources more efficiently.

Very importantly, improving packaging of food and reducing its loss and waste at various stages of the supply chain can have a positive impact on the sustainable utilization of natural resources. This is largely due to the reduced land use pressure, because less conversion of forests to farmland would need to take place to produce the real consumption of food, which is without excessive loss and waste. This is particularly important when we know that the world population will continue to grow, and that consumer habits, diets and packaging needs keep changing. Also climate change, water scarcity and soil contamination will increase the uncertainty of agricultural productivity in many regions. All measures are needed, including sustainable bio-packaging of food, to efficiently mitigate the challenge of healthy nutrition to all.


last updated:  Wednesday, March 11, 2015