Packaging and food waste

Given that nearly 60% of the food produced in Canada gets discarded, and food production accounts for a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, it’s clear that food waste must be a central part of the debate on preserving the environment.

There is a wealth of advice to help consumers reduce their household waste (Sauve ta bouffe, Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation). And many grocers donate their surplus stock to food banks (BAQ, FBC, Second Harvest). Some distributors are also contributing by teaming with eco-design experts to develop packaging solutions that prolong the shelf life of foods. The food market is a vast one that involves many players, and the journey from farm to plate is complex; but there are solutions—and there are stakeholders who are committed to developing them.

Is packaging really needed?

Food safety must be maintained throughout the food supply chain to prevent contamination from diseases, germs and bacteria. The industry is responsible for eliminating contaminant-related risks by blocking dangerous pathogens, which are the cause of frequent food product recalls, especially in the meat sector. Packaging often serves part of that function. In addition to maintaining food safety, packaging can also significantly extend the shelf life of foods and do so without the use of sterilization or artificial preservatives. It is possible to optimize packaging in order to reduce waste at both the retail and consumer levels, without resorting to overpacking.

Prolonged shelf life

Modified atmosphere technology is often used to lengthen the conservation time of foods. “Barrier” containers are specifically designed to prevent the oxygen from entering the packaging, which can slow the food ageing process to some extent. Modified atmosphere packaging is particularly effective at slowing bacterial growth as well as preventing high-fat foods, such as meat and poultry, from spoiling because it reduces their exposure to oxygen. Some packaging can even double the conservation time of fresh protein.

Several factors determine what materials are chosen for packaging which has a preservation function; these factors include the food’s recommended storage temperature, the relative humidity of the container, and the effects of light. Polyethylene terephthalate, a rigid plastic used to produce water bottles or soda bottles for example, has interesting barrier properties—Cascades uses it, for example, to manufacture containers that extend the shelf life of fresh protein, while making sure to incorporate 100% recycled materials, thereby supporting the circular economy at the same time.

Conservation at the optimal temperature

The difference between a food’s ideal preservation temperature, and the variations it will be exposed to, is another factor that affects the shelf life of the food. While the number of bacteria can as much as double in 20 minutes for certain meats and poultry left at room temperature, optimal temperature management can help reduce waste. Having the right packaging for each product affects the conservation of foods throughout the “cold chain”.

The ready-to-cook market, which has also taken off recently, needs to preserve the freshness of foods right up to delivery at the customer’s door, in often variable and unpredictable weather conditions. Low environmental impact options exist, such as thermal boxes made with a majority of recycled cardboard that are also recyclable. Their insulating system makes it possible to keep foods fresh at their optimal temperature for many hours. A benefit of ready-to-cook meals is that they are generally served in pre-portioned formats, which results in less waste.

Ask yourself the right questions

With food waste, as with other environmental considerations, reduction is often the first step toward a solution. Reconsidering the reasons used to justify food waste can also lead to a healthy new point of view. Should we really throw out that food item that looks less attractive but is still good? Are we rejecting it based on perception or fact? Cascades would like to hear from you: Do you have other suggestions for reducing food waste?


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About the Author

Technical Manager at the Consumer Products Packaging division of Cascades Specialty Products Group, Mathieu Roberge first stated at Cascades 18 years ago as a R&D Chemist at the Cascades R&D Center. After 5 years working on projects for various Cascades divisions, he became dedicated to product development and technical support for Cascades polystyrene foam plants and then quickly got promoted to R&D Manager for Consumer product Packaging of Cascades that is specialized in the design and manufacturing of Fresh food packaging as well as consumer good packaging. Mathieu is now is in charge of all products development, research and innovation, process improvement of the group as well as being an advisor and a coach in Cascades packaging sustainability program. Over the last years, Mathieu and his team accumulates several Innovative product success such as the realization of EVOK the first polystyrene foam in North America with 50% recycled material as well as Integral, an intrinsic barrier modified atmosphere packaging trays with 100% recycled material.

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