According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year, costing around $680 billion in industrialized countries and $310 billion in the developing world. Imagine what that means for the 800 million people who suffer from starvation across the globe? That’s 2.6 trillion lbs of food wasted annually, enough to feed those 800 million people twice over.

Thirty-one per cent of all food produced in the United States goes uneaten, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2015 figures, and each American discards more than 36 lbs of groceries every month. The U.S.D.A. further found that a typical American throws out 40% of the fresh fish, 23% of the eggs and 20% of the milk they buy.

The impact of this waste extends far beyond overstuffed trash bins. When food goes to waste, so do the resources that it took to produce, process and transport these products. Massive amounts of chemicals, fertilizer and fuel, acres of land and, in the United States alone, 25% of all freshwater used to produce food is discarded. Uneaten food ends up in landfills, where its decomposition accounts for nearly 25% of U.S. emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more harmful than CO?, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.).

Consumers and brands alike are increasingly aware of the environmental damage and mindful of the financial hit they take from buying food they end up discarding. An often overlooked part of the waste stream is fully costed waste, which results from product that has been manufactured, packaged and distributed without ever being sold and consumed. To directly address this loss, manufacturers — alongside retailers and government agencies — increasingly are motivated to implement advanced packaging solutions that extend shelf life and minimize waste.

Packaging designed to boost shelf life

One much lauded retail example is that of British chain Tesco. In 2014, the supermarket revealed in a report that it had wasted 28,500 tons of food, a risky public relations move but done for a reason.

“We do not just want to reduce food waste in our own operations,” Tesco said. “We have a shared responsibility to reduce food waste across the value chain wherever it occurs in fields, farms, distribution networks and in our homes. By sharing this information, we have added important evidence to the debate on how to tackle food waste. We are now taking action to tackle hotspots across the value chain and are donating surplus food to those in need.”

In addition to community-based efforts to combat food waste, Tesco took up the issue of improved packaging. The chain’s raw chicken breasts are a case in point: rather than being sold in a plastic-wrapped tray, a pre-portioned package allows consumers to cook one breast and save the other for later. Finding a way to reduce waste that relies on concept rather than technology, Tesco even absorbed the extra cost of the packaging to encourage consumers to fight waste.

As another example, a new package design from Muchtar Ismailow of K-Bis Studio keeps juices, milk, other beverages and liquid foods fresh for much longer. The I-Pack is compressible and has a 100% airtight hermetic seal that fits in the same space as a standard beverage carton cap and yet keeps the package pressurized after opening. The result is greatly increased shelf life of opened milk, juice, soups or sauces, and the folded, emptied container is very easily recyclable.

MAP, HPP and pasteurization preserve freshness 

In addition to looking for material and container solutions to preserve food and beverages longer, companies are exploring more complex packaging solutions and methodologies to reduce waste.

Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) can extend the life of fresh or minimally processed foods much longer and with less environmental impact. For example, it significantly reduces the amount of oxygen sealed into bags of things like shredded cheese, potato chips and meats, delaying decomposition. The gases that remain — typically nitrogen and CO? — do not react with or degrade food products, so contents keep fresher, longer. An outgrowth of this technology, Equilibrium Modified Atmosphere Packaging (EMAP) contains a lowered level of oxygen and a higher proportion of CO?, which preserves fresh produce.

Both EMAP and MAP packaging use “gas flushing,” in which the correct gas mixture is rapidly injected into the bag and the air is removed from the packaging. Gas packaging technology employs different films, which in the case of inert products such as meat, fish or cheese, acts as an airtight barrier against gases. With produce like carrots or broccoli, which respire, the technology allows the release of waste gases.

Pasteurization is another tried-and-true method to preserve freshness and food safety. High-pressure processing (HPP) is a cold pasteurization process that is increasingly popular, used to kill listeria, E. coli, Salmonella and other bacteria. Food is processed, packaged and then pressure-treated, usually with water, at refrigerated temperatures. The process protects food’s color, texture and flavor, as well as its vitamins and nutrients. Food manufacturers can significantly extend products’ shelf life with HPP, while eliminating or significantly reducing preservatives and artificial additives, providing a healthier, more natural product. As a result, more companies are adopting this method because it meets consumer demand for additive- and preservative-free foods and environmentally friendly options.

Smart labels and systematic solutions

For several decades, sell-by labels have identified when a product ought to be discarded. They work, but are based on estimates, not actual conditions. Where sell-by labels leave off, smart labels pick up.

A technological leap forward that can monitor temperature and give reports on when a food item is at risk of spoiling, smart labels represent the revolution taking place now in the cold chain that allows more efficient, safer shipments of perishables. Timestrip monitors food in shipment. The monitor can register if a product travels out of safe temperature range, and if so, for how long, recommending if food should be sold or thrown out. Although these monitors are not in wide use yet, this type of packaging may lead to even safer shipment and consumption in the future.

While smart labels empower consumers and retailers to make more effective use of foods before diverting them to the waste stream, large-scale solutions can also transform waste management infrastructure. One systemic solution proposed by the E.P.A. is the Food Recovery Hierarchy, which prioritizes actions to prevent food waste. The Hierarchy is designed to eliminate waste by minimizing food surpluses through source reduction then donating surpluses to food banks to feed hungry people. Additional surplus can shift to animal feed, followed by industrial uses, composting and, as a last resort, the landfill. The Hierarchy’s top levels — minimizing surplus and donating to food banks — create the most benefits for the environment, society and economy and stress recovery of what would end up as waste.

Solutions abound at PACK EXPO International

Ultimately, food waste is a global challenge, and it will take the cooperation of retailers, food manufacturers, suppliers and consumers to forge meaningful reductions. However, new and sophisticated packaging formats, practices and advanced labels can significantly reduce waste. For food manufacturers, these changes also may bring about cuts to fully costed waste, greater brand loyalty among consumers and a healthier bottom line. To help food professionals find the solutions they need, PACK EXPO International 2018, Oct. 14-17 at McCormick Place, Chicago, will offer a range of packaging materials, containers and equipment. The show will bring together more than 2,500 exhibitors and 50,000 attendees. In addition, features like The Containers and Materials Pavilion and

The Reusable Packaging Pavilion will display cutting-edge innovations in flexible, resealable and sustainable packaging.

To register and learn more, visit