New RMIT-led research reveals most Australians think food packaging waste is a bigger environmental issue than food waste, but the opposite is true.
With Australians said to be wasting four times more food than food packaging, experts are calling for a more nuanced approach to help consumers and industry understand packaging’s role in reducing food waste, rather than a simple war on plastic.
The research, supported by the Fight Food Waste Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), surveyed 965 Australian consumers on their perceptions of the role of packaging in reducing food waste.
RMIT project lead Professor Linda Brennan says consumers’ negative perceptions of packaging were due to it being seen as a single-use waste product that needed to be disposed of once the food had been consumed.
“A lot of people don’t realise packaging can play an important role in preventing food waste,” she says.
“Packaging designed with food waste reduction in mind can keep food fresher for longer and provide protection from damage.”
A final report consolidating the team’s five-year research included alternative packaging designs to save food.
Suggestions included better date labelling, divided portions for bulk foods, resealable packaging and clearer communications on how to best avoid bacterial contamination.
While single-waste plastic was bad for the environment, co-author and RMIT Associate Professor Lukas Parker says some foods, such as meat, had almost no suitable packaging alternatives that were as effective and practical at present.
“Unfortunately, packaging may be unavoidable if we want to reduce food waste, so it’s all about balancing how much plastic is used to save food from waste,” he says.
“If we forgo the plastic packaging on some items like steak, it can lead to waste because it will impact the steak’s shelf life.”
Mr Parker says there’s also a misconception that composted food doesn’t count as food waste.
“While composting food is better than throwing it in landfill, it may unintentionally lead to the misperception that it’s OK to waste food if it’s being reused for gardening purposes,” he says.
“But a lot of energy and resources are needed to grow, process, transport and package the food. So, when food goes uneaten and is rotting in compost, that energy is wasted.”
Better packaging and clearer instructions
While over 60% of global food waste came from households, the researchers say consumers shouldn’t shoulder all the blame for the issue.
Their research identified most Australian household food waste was the result of unsuitable packaging sizes, poor purchasing habits, date label confusion, poor food storage knowledge and behaviours.
Ms Brennan says many of these factors could be improved if packaging was designed better with clearer instructions on how best to portion out food or store food for longevity.
Bulk-buying practices are also a contributor to food waste, especially in low-income households trying to save money.
“Bulk-food options tend to have portion sizes that are too big for the household’s needs,” says Mr Parker.
“It leads to more food waste because people get bored of eating the same food every day, and if it has insufficient instructions on storage or resealing, it will lead to food going off faster.”
While the team’s recommendations for alternative food packaging would help reduce food waste, Ms Brennan acknowledges it’s expensive for industry to adopt as new machinery, processes and materials would be needed to implement.
She says the government needs to create public policy to help industry waste less and design packaging to save food, rather than rely on consumer-education campaigns.
“Policy interventions are necessary where there is a clash between consumer desires, industry profit-seeking and societal and environmental wellbeing,” says Ms Breennan.
“Even policy guidelines around suitable portion sizes for households, or banning non-resealable packaging on perishable foods, could begin to help make change.”
The team are starting a new project funded by the Fight Food Waste CRC to review and overhaul date labelling and storage instructions on food packaging.
Mr Parker says current ‘best before’ dates on packaging were a measure of quality, not a measure of safety, which can lead to consumers disposing of foods that were still safe to eat despite the date having passed.
The team hope to advise on a national approach to improve date labelling conventions to help consumers avoid confusion.