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The war on food waste and how 'smart' packaging can help win it

The war on food waste and how 'smart' packaging can help win it

American consumers throw away about 80 billion pounds of food a year, however, only about half of them are aware that food waste is a problem, and many find some benefit in doing so, according to a new Ohio State study.

The researchers developed the national survey to identify Americans’ awareness and attitudes regarding food waste. In July 2015, it was administered to 500 people representative of the U.S. population.

The study found that 53% of respondents said they were aware that food waste is a problem. This is about 10% higher than a Johns Hopkins study published last year, which indicates awareness of the problem could be escalating.

“Generally, we found that people consider three things regarding food waste,” said Danyi Qi, a doctoral student and a co-author of the study. “They perceive there are practical benefits, such as a reduced risk of foodborne illness, but at the same time they feel guilty about wasting food. They also know that their behaviors and how they manage their household influence how much food they waste.”

Speaking at the upcoming PLASTEC Minneapolis event in September addressing this global epidemic is Claire Sand, Owner, Packaging Technology & Research, LLC; Adjunct Professor, Michigan State University.

In her presentation, Sand discusses the role of intelligent food packaging and the types of research required to combat food waste.

PlasticsToday caught up with Sand ahead of her presentation to give our readers a sneak peek of what to look forward to at PLASTEC Minneapolis.

Hear Sand discuss, “Breakthroughs in Intelligent and Responsive Packaging to Reduce Food Waste,” on Wednesday, September 21, at PLASTEC Minneapolis in Minneaplis, MN.

PT: What should the packaging say?

Sand: Ideally a package should focus on adding economic value from plastics companies through to consumers:

  1. Indicate the end of shelf-life to replace the sniff test consumers often conduct and avoid:
    • Throwing out food that is still safe to eat
    • Consumer’s eating food that is not safe and that can cause sickness.
  2. Be responsive and act to reduce spoilage
  3. Assist retailers with rotating stock and ensuring product freshness
  4. Assist with marketing food in terms of providing pairing options
  5. Assist with reordering. For example, empty packages can be scanned to build grocery lists
  6. Provide tangible information like directions for recycling

PT: What types of solutions are food, packaging and equipment producers developing that lead to more food being eaten?

Sand: We are focusing on reducing food waste. Thirty percent of food in the US and in many urban areas of developing countries is wasted in the hands of consumers. This food is also packaged and the packaging is then wasted as well. Items 2-5 above would increase food sales.

PT: What are some recent advances in responsive food packaging?

Sand: Responsive packaging is packaging that responds or acts. There are five main reactions that cause food to deteriorate—oxidation, moisture gain/loss, enzymatic browning, non-enzymatic browning, and microbial growth. 

Advances are centering around detecting these reactions using intelligent packaging and then acting to respond (or act) to reduce the reaction in a controlled manner. For example, we currently have BHT /BHA within cereal and cracker bags. This prevents yellowing and also is an antioxidant (within FDA limits) to reduce oxidation in the food in contact with the bag. With responsive packaging, the BHT/BHA would only be released if needed and the amount of preservative can then be reduced. Now, it is just released whether it is needed or not.

PT: What are some current applications in responsive food packaging?

Sand: There are two applications—to reduce food waste and to market food are in play now. 

PT: What are some challenges to responsive food packaging?

Sand: First chemical reactions are complex and deep research is needed. Secondly, implementation of responsive packaging needs to be spread through the entire supply/value chain to balance costs and benefits.  

Right now we focus on two solutions—one for consumers and one for distribution (from manufacturer to retailer). This is expensive. For example, most retailers require temperature—time monitoring on produce coming from farms to ensure that the product has not been exposed to too cold or too hot of temperature to too long. This monitoring ends at the retailer. It consumers had access to this information, it would help guide them on the end of shelf life. We do see consumer versions (called TTIs) on fish and seafood. But, connecting the two areas would reduce costs.

PT: Future trends on the horizon?


  1. Integration of intelligent and responsive packaging from plastics suppliers to consumer disposal and package reuse/recycling/etc. Plastics companies that can make this connection from brand owner through distribution and to consumers will add value to packaging. In my Masters level class at MSU we explore how this can be done.
  2. Intelligent and responsive packaging that explores how features can be seamless integrated into a package are in development.For example:
    • A seal that changes color after a package has been opened for five days. Some products are labeled, “use within x days after opening.” Consumers need information on when this opening happened.
    • A bottle liner that releases CO2 to act as a antimicrobial on day five (or after a certain microbial level is reached) after juice has been opened increases the shelf-life of the juice.

PT: What types of safety restrictions are required?

Sand: FDA guidelines as with all packaging need to be followed. Ideally, responsive packaging increases food safety by using preservatives only

TAGS: Recycling
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