Comida em embalagens plásticas. Crédito: Ibrahim Rifath/Unsplash

How many packages has your food been before getting to your table?

The greatest part of food waste is related to transportation and storage failure. Using proper packaging vastly minimizes the problem. Learn how grains, vegetables and meat make their way to you

If you have ever visited a buffet style restaurant you are likely to have an idea of what a pound of food means. And if you can imagine a 1-pound meal comprised of well-balanced food with vegetables, grains and animal protein, you should know that until this meal reaches your table, 14 ounces of food have been wasted.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization for Brazil (FAO), from one fourth to one third of food produced every year worldwide is wasted, which means 1.3 billion tons of food - the entity estimates that the amount would be enough to supply two out of the seven billion people in the world.

From that total, 6% of wasted food was produced in Latin America. In this region, where 47 million people live under starvation conditions, 28% of waste can be credited into the end consumer account - us -, but most escapes our eyes. From the total amount, 28% are lost still at production, 22% at handling and storage, 17% at distribution and market and 6% at processing.

“At FAO, we differentiate the idea of loss and waste. Loss occurs at producer level, during harvest, storage and transport,” explains Alan Bojanic, FAO representative. Eliminating waste is an act of consciousness. But reducing food loss is a matter of structure. “Regarding this matter, investment is needed: better roads, better warehouses, silos, more efficient combined harvesters, producers more conscious on the meaning of loss. Only then the logistics can improve,” explains Bojanic.

There is an element in the production chain that is essential to bring food from the field to our tables efficiently - or not efficiently, when its use is not appropriate. And that is packaging, a key element to store, transport and deliver food safely and in proper consumption conditions.

How can packaging become a sustainable economy factor?

Impact on Earth by human action can be measured in different ways. Some indexes point out at carbon footprint, water, energy... Across all of them, production of food appears as one of the main interventions on the planet by our species. Beef is probably the most emblematic example: according to the FAO, the territory required for production of this food takes 26% of all Earth habitable surface, and just 1 kg (2 lb) of sirloin, or any other cut, demands 15.4 thousand liters of fresh water to make it to your table.

This means that a significant amount of meat may rot due to poor storage, since a lot of water and a large portion of land have been wasted - not to mention a life; after all, an animal was slaughtered to generate food. Protecting the end product is also protecting all natural resources available as to produce it.

Carrinho de venda de frutas. Crédito: Varun Tandon/Unsplash

“When we talk about packaging, we talk about solutions aiming at product efficiency and adequacy, including from an environmental sustainability perspective,” says Luciana Pellegrino, CEO at the Brazilian Packaging Association (Abre). “And from the social and economic perspective, it should be thought of as an affordable product for the population,” she adds.

The document Ethical living: Plastic - lose it or re-use it?, published in March 2018 using Euromonitor data, takes a step further. The report states that the use of proper packaging protects natural resources (miscellaneous materials, water and energy) ten times more than the planet requires.

Using the suitable packaging for a given product

A survey conducted by FAO, replicated in the document The Value of Flexible Packaging in Extending Shelf Life and Reducing Food Waste, elaborated by the Flexible Packaging Association (FDA), shows that fruits and vegetables and grains are more vulnerable at storage and transport. In the case of grains, 10% of the total is lost at packaging process and 2% at distribution. Vegetables and fruits require extra care at transport and distribution, in which 12% are lost.

Eloisa Garcia, researcher at Cetea, explains that we need to understand the degeneration trigger for each type of food and which protection should be thought for each in three aspects: mechanical, physical and chemical, and microbiological. Fruit and vegetable products, for example, are highly sensitive to fall and collision. Meat, on the other hand, shows high risk of macrobiotic infestation.

Embalagens orientais. Crédito: Erik Eastman/Unsplash

Then, when we look closer to a standard Western culture meal, full of vegetables, grains and animal derived meat, we notice that such food has travelled across plenty of formats and different packaging materials. Grains, like rice and beans, are resistant to mechanical shock, but need to be packed in containers able to resist falls and collisions so that they are not lost at transport and at storage. “They are products that spoil because of moisture buildup and, therefore, they need some material resistant to water vapor, like some polypropylene and polyethylene resins,” explains Garcia.

Fruits and vegetables, in turn, require packaging able to protect them against mechanical risks. “It should be fall and collision resistant, but in such a way that can also be handled,” says Eloisa. As for fruits and vegetables, the main concerns are transport and final consumption. For product transportation, it is recommended the use of plastic boxes in place of wood boxes, for two reasons: a product like a tomato, for example, tends to rub against the wood surface losing quality, and plastic material is also easier to be washed and, therefore, less likely to carry bacteria.

At final consumption, the Cetea researcher explains that currently there are sophisticated mechanisms to extend their shelf life, such as high performance plastic wrap. Without specific care for each of them, degradation of freshness becomes noticeable if the food evaporates just 3% of water from its initial weight. To avoid the problem, the respiration rate of fruits and vegetables should be reduced.

Technologies involving flexible modified atmosphere packaging, such as vacuum, show high performance results. They can extend the shelf life of grapes from 7 to 70 days, mangoes from 20 to 40 days and broccoli florets from 6 to 20 days.

This very same packaging type is already common for meat and animal-derived food. Such flexible modified atmosphere packaging improves ground beef consumption conditions from 3 to 20 days, fish from 7 to 12 days, and provolone cheese from 190 to 280 days.

Extra care should be taken when storing meat, for mainly two reasons: loss of water and microorganism proliferation. “When frozen, the main concern is avoiding freeze-drying or even freezer burn. It also dries when refrigerated, but just a little. Sensitivity to oxygen is the problem, because it makes the product lose pigmentation and become brown. That doesn’t compromise meat’s nutritional properties, but the consumer rejects it,” she explains.

To ensure microbiological protection, the best solution is to completely eliminate exposing the product to oxygen - without the gas, microorganisms die.” Vacuum packaging and mechanical barriers to oxygen can be combined. For the latter, two barriers are combined, and the most suitable materials are aluminum, metalized film and nylon film or film made of other type of plastic,” she continues.

Garrafas de vidro para vinho. Crédito: PxHere

When beverage is added to the meal, new packaging technologies arise. Soda bottle mandatorily has to keep the maximum amount of carbon dioxide possible inside, as gas conserves the liquid and has bactericidal effect. With beer, the reasoning is the same, but there is one aggravating factor: the drink’s intense oxidation when in contact with air. “For soda, a PET bottle offers protection for three months, but if I want to keep it longer, I have to use aluminum or glass - they are the most suitable for beer.”

Finally, oxygen is the greatest villain when facing the challenge of getting a cup of coffee rich in flavor and scent to the table. The grain roasted and ground version reacts to the air and oxidizes quickly, losing its most remarkable features. “Coffee packaging, specially the capsule version, has to be very efficient, which is why it’s produced in three layers: polyester, aluminum and polyethylene sheet. Vacuum is also applied,” completes Eloisa.

What about you? Have you thought of ways to reuse your food packaging?