Stakeholders across the industry, from the farmer all the way to the consumer, are troubled with finding the best solution for them and their food – but it doesn’t need to be this way, writes Tiina Pursula, senior vice president, sustainability at Stora Enso Packaging Materials.
- Food security is at the top of the agenda and this is coupled with a desire for a more sustainable and circular future for the food industry.
- As an industry, we should be proud of the variety of solutions we’ve engineered to work for a wide variety of foods and their transport and storage needs, but now we need to work together across the stakeholder chain.
- Above all, only by adopting a collaborative approach and keeping an open dialogue will we be able to make significant headway and progress.
Agricultural uncertainty caused by extreme and changing weather conditions in traditional farming areas has seen headlines look at food security as interlinked with climate change. Additionally, in a cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by geopolitical tensions and conflict, emerging food scarcity is now top of agendas across Europe and beyond.
Whilst the Paris Climate Agreement and United Nations SDGs are making headway in tackling the effects of climate change on farming, there are still entire regions which are more frequently affected by cases of extreme weather and the consequences of this on agriculture and, therefore, livelihoods.
Protecting the food we do have becomes more important with every additional growing challenge. Today our supply chains are grappling with a range of complexities in getting food onto people’s tables and keeping carbon footprints low.
The other side of the coin presents an industry-led solution: packaging. Whilst innovative renewable and recyclable solutions have come to the fore, the industry also needs to take an active role in closing the loop and providing a more circular food system. Right-sized packaging with simplified design and materials that help to prolong shelf lives could light the spark for continued innovation and create a future-proof food system for generations to come.
It’s clear that food security is at the top of the agenda and this is coupled with a desire for a more sustainable and circular future for the food industry, but how can the two converging needs be met, and propelled forward, in equilibrium?
Thawing a stigma
Life after harvest plays a significant role in the conversation. In the EU, 42% of food is wasted at the consumption level each year, adding up to €132 billion in associated market value. There are many ways we can bring this down, one such example is better use of frozen foods to increase shelf life.
But this will require some changes in consumers’ perception. Around 60% of shoppers believe that fresh food is always better. However, by freezing fruit and vegetables at the source, producers maintain nutritional value and ease transportation from farm to supermarket. With the greater desire for out-of-season produce, such as summer berries in the winter, freezing can help brands meet consumer demands. This process also allows for greater utilisation of ‘wonky’ fruit and vegetables that otherwise might not make it to our shop floors, but are still perfectly edible and can end up as packaged frozen smoothie or soup mixes, for example.
Of course, frozen food has its challenges with a very specific set of transport requirements and unique packaging needs, but this shouldn’t deter us. The current transport chain for frozen food is also on its own decarbonisation journey, as it looks to lower-impact solutions to power its freezers and mitigate the climate effects of cooling agents. The latest innovations in bio-based packaging, such as paper-based pressed tray material for replacing plastic and aluminium, mean that we don’t need to forgo hygiene, functionality or recyclability.
And we’re not the first ones to notice the benefits of frozen food. In fact, numbers are steadily rising with units of packaging for frozen fruits increasing by 22% in the past five years in Eastern Europe, according to Euromonitor, and with such powerful packaging options in our arsenal, there’s no reason to slow down.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure
On the other hand, we have food packaging waste – a significant problem to tackle on its own. An important element to mention here is the recyclable versus reusable debate. Equally, we must not forget that lots of foods come with their very own compostable packaging already built in, such as bananas and oranges, for example.
A recent Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) we conducted found that plastic crates used to transport citrus fruits need to be reused 36 times before they match the climate impact of a corrugated box. However, as indicated by another recent LCA considering a scientific review of several studies and sources, an average of 24 uses might be a more likely lifespan. After this point, breakage or loss can occur and the crates will need to be properly disposed of and replaced.
While built to be reusable, we need to recognise nothing is infinitely so, and even if it was, the environmental impact of cleaning crates between uses and transporting them back and forth adds up.
Looking closer at two recyclable options in another LCA conducted by Stora Enso, this time focusing on consumer berry punnets, a corrugated punnet has almost 80% lower climate impact than its recycled plastic counterpart and shows benefits in 10 of 12 other environmental impact categories. So even when we can boast a recycled mix in our packaging, depending on the end use, it’s still not necessarily the most environmentally friendly option. Fibre-based packaging also meets customer desires to be more circular, and encourages a more simple renewable solution to replace fossil-based materials.
How to balance the scales
With a variety of options to choose from, from fresh to frozen, recycled to reusable, it’s no wonder that stakeholders across the industry, from the farmer all the way to the consumer, are troubled with finding the best solution for them and their food. But it doesn’t need to be this way. As an industry, we should be proud of the variety of solutions we’ve engineered to work for a wide variety of foods and their transport and storage needs, but now we need to work together across the stakeholder chain.
Above all, only by adopting a collaborative approach and keeping an open dialogue will we be able to make significant headway and progress. From farmers to food, producers and packaging developers, there is a potentially bumpy road ahead, with options aplenty, and a vast number of decisions to be made. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The key to unlocking actionable impact is bringing voices across the value chain together, sharing pain points, innovations and solutions to a more circular future for our food systems.
The opinions of guest authors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of SG Voice.