ANALYSIS: Packaging, the new food waste saviour?

Tesco has raised the stakes on the supermarket food waste front by announcing its second wave of packaging designed to keep produce fresher for longer.

This week the retailer pilots a new film in its stores that claims to double the amount of time fruit and vegetables stay fresh. The packaging works by slowing down the rate at which produce decays, effectively doubling ‘best before’ dates.

This could potentially have a huge impact in reducing the amount of food waste generated by householders – Tesco says the move will save its customers “millions of pounds a year”.

The film, which is bio-degradable and compostable, has been developed after five years of research by British packaging firm EVAP and can be tailored to suit individual produce according to their respiration rates.

The innovation comes just three months after Tesco’s first experiment in this field – in February it launched a packaging strip that absorbs ethylene, the hormone that causes fruit to ripen and turn mouldy.

Marks & Spencer is also using a similar strip in product trials to keep strawberries fresher. The company reckons the new technology could cut the amount of waste by the equivalent of 40,000 punnets.

The timings of such trials are crucial – the retailers concerned will be hoping for successful outcomes that can pave the way for such solutions to be rolled out across multiple product lines in-store as they face increasing pressure to get to grips with the amount of food going unsold or unused.

This week parliament is hosting a roundtable discussion on the issue, coinciding with new research from the Fabian Society that will call for the major retailers to be graded on their food waste performance.

The report also wants obligations to be placed on the likes of Tesco and Marks & Spencer to disclose their annual food waste arisings in the interests of public fairness and corporate transparency. Currently only Sainsbury’s has revealed how much food it wastes each year.

According to WRAP who is working with the big supermarkets on reduction techniques through consumer-facing initiatives, as well as supply chain collaboration, packaging innovation can play a significant role in helping to cut down on wastage as such measures go a long way to increasing shelf-life.

That said, some would argue there is still a long way to go – and engineering better packaging will only help solve part of the problem. Food waste campaigner and author Tristram Stuart claims that British consumers waste around 25% of their food shopping, and that BOGOF deals have a lot to answer for.

He believes the supermarkets need to develop better stock forecasting methods if they are to put the brakes on the overproduction mechanisms that their supply chains are geared towards. If such surplus is avoided in the first place, Stuart argues, carbon impacts are lessened and this will have a positive global impact in halting the destruction of forests and rising crop prices.

Food waste is an emotive issue and the appetite for curbing this material stream isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. It will be interesting to see how the outcomes of the parliamentary roundtable discussion taking place this Wednesday feed into this debate.

Maxine Perella

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