On June 2, 2020, the National Zero Waste Council (NZWC) led by the metropolitan government of Vancouver, Canada announced the publication of a report investigating the relationships between food waste, food packaging, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The study reviewed the effectiveness of plastic, glass, metal, and paper as food packaging materials for extending the shelf life of twelve grocery product types and with the aim to reduce GHG emissions. It recognized that while some foods can be sold unpackaged (such as apples and dry pasta), “the vast majority of foods last longer when packaged properly,” such as fresh poultry and milk products. Chair of the NZWC, Malcom Brodie, commented “rather than eliminating packaging, the industry must choose packaging materials and designs that keep food from spoiling and support the circular economy in Canada.”
The report found that for many types of foods “any GHG reductions achieved by not pre-packaging food are quickly outweighed by even a minor increase in food waste,” and reviewed data suggests that the GHG emissions from use of virgin packaging materials contribute just 5% of total GHG from the food sector. Considering dried pasta, however, packaging was found to account for 60% of its total GHG emissions, which could be entirely avoided through selling it in bulk without packaging. To address these differences, the report calls for better designing food packaging towards achieving a circular economy and argues that “pollution caused by sub-optimized packaging materials and management systems [have] become a sign of a linear economy typified by over-consumption, waste, and pollution.”
Based on a literature review and over 200 responses from stakeholders, the report details current challenges to optimize packaging, discusses “the proven role that packaging plays in reducing” food loss and waste (FLW), and introduces examples of where packaging has been optimized to reduce FLW. It estimates that reducing FLW by 50% in Canada, composting remaining FLW, and transitioning all packaging to being fully recycled could lead to a near 50% net reduction of GHG emissions compared to the modeled baseline scenario.
NZWC (June 2, 2020). “Major benefits in tackling food waste.”
NZWC (June 2, 2020). “Food Loss & Waste: Answering the Packaging Question.” (pdf)
Maryse Zeidler (June 6, 2020). “Not all plastic food packaging is bad, says National Zero Waste Council.” CBC
NZWC (June 2, 2020). “Less Food Loss and Waste, Less Packaging Waste.” (pdf)