It's a difficult balance. Food manufacturers, packaging producers and also we packaging designers have to weigh up with every project between the effort and material input for a packaging and the shelf life of the packaged food. If this trade-off doesn't work, the impact on the environment, on recycling opportunities, on CO2 emissions can be quite negative: If the packaging is not suitable for extending the shelf life of the food, the not inconsiderable CO2 emissions of food production take full effect when it is thrown away instead of consumed. If, on the other hand, the packaging is oversized, the high material input often also causes high CO2 emissions during production. The way out of the dilemma is best resolved by looking at packaging and contents as a system rather than separately. The formula: the CO2 emission caused by the packaging is on average only about two to four percent of the CO2 produced by the food. "Actually, this realization is also already widespread. However, understandably, there is always an attempt within the framework of 'Refuse and Reduce' - that is, avoid and reduce - to omit packaging altogether or reduce it as far as possible. Our opinion is quite clear: sustainable packaging puts the product at the center and sustainability at the forefront. Or, to put it another way: the packaging should be as sustainable as possible, but the safety of the product must always be maintained. At the moment, at least that's my impression, the industry is very much on the move, with many trying to optimize packaging," says Pacoon Managing Director Peter Désilets.
No more than necessary
Combating food waste could also be the key to significantly improving our global climate footprint. In the European Union alone, 88 million tons of food are not consumed each year but thrown away. This amount of food, produced at great expense and with high greenhouse gas emissions and then not eaten, is responsible for ten percent of total global CO2 emissions. Packaging can be the problem or the solution right there, as Charles Héaulmé, head of the Finnish packaging group Huhtamäki, recently put it quite pointedly: "The best solution to reduce food waste is to ensure shelf life, that is, to ensure that consumers get the amount they need and not much more than what they need, so that there is no food waste - and that's the role of packaging."
How packaging pays off
But how can the actual environmental impact of packaging still be calculated? Munich University of Applied Sciences has developed an online calculator for this purpose. The Sustainable Packaging Online Calculator (SPOC) makes it possible to determine the so-called impact quotient from the CO2 footprint of the contents and the packaging with just a few clicks. This impact quotient tells you what percentage of the content actually has to be protected so that the packaging is also worthwhile in terms of climate arithmetic. Whether it does so depends on the content: The production of meat, for example, is ecologically enormously resource-intensive, so packaging that increases shelf life, for example, pays off quite quickly from the perspective of the CO2 balance. "It's not only from a climate perspective that the industry is keen to get food and products safely to the man or woman. But a major sticking point is mostly that companies don't even know exactly what protection requirements in the form of barriers are actually necessary for the product in question," says Désilets. This uncertainty leads to a certain pattern of behavior: "In case of doubt, protection is then set too high according to the motto 'better safe than sorry'. This often prevents sensible reductions. As experts, it is one of our tasks to put our finger in this wound and encourage customers to determine the values that are actually necessary. And then to develop possible packaging alternatives on that basis."
More reusable is a must
The often existing conflict of objectives between food shelf life, packaging costs and CO2 savings can best be resolved by making reusable packaging systems more attractive. This has now also landed on the agenda of the European Commission. The Brussels-based authority has now presented a draft law that is intended to anchor both the recyclability of packaging and the use of reusable systems more firmly in the industry. This is to be achieved by banning certain single-use packaging, such as for food and beverages in the catering industry or for fruit and vegetables, and thus motivating packaging manufacturers, who have so far concentrated on these markets, to introduce reusable innovations. This is expected to have two effects: to reduce the amount of packaging waste per EU citizen by 15 percent by 2040 and also to generate an effect on the labor market. The EU Commission estimates that up to 600,000 jobs could be created in the innovation-intensive sectors of the packaging industry.
Pacoon Managing Director Peter Désilets welcomes this: "Such legislation is an important factor in giving direction to the industry. In the past, this framework was lacking from the market, we called this the `triangle of waiting' - everyone waited until the other demanded or offered something. Legislation is one of the new drivers in the market and the new requirements will significantly reduce packaging waste in the future."
According to an estimate by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, reusable systems could reduce the amount of packaging by around one-fifth. But Désilets also warns against exaggerated expectations: "This does not mean that we will also reduce food waste. Because although we know from studies that a large proportion of waste occurs on the consumer side, there are various reasons for this. A longer shelf life through stable reusable packaging can prevent a lot of food from being thrown away at the best-before date, because that date could then also be pushed back. In the end, however, many other aspects are not affected by the EU regulations such as cheap bulk packaging, interrupted cold chains or poor handling in the kitchen."