In this article, Olga Kachook, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, gives an American perspective on how European countries are using packaging to tackle food waste – and unpacks the lessons that the USA could learn from its European counterparts.
One of my favorite things to do when I travel outside of America is to pop into local supermarkets. Not only is it fascinating to see what’s on offer (have you seen the yogurt aisles?!), it’s also amazing how everyday things that we don’t take much notice of can be so different. Turnstiles at the entrance, tiny shopping baskets, the queuing process at the register - suddenly it’s obvious you’re not in Kansas anymore.
Maybe you too have recently snooped around a grocery retailer in the UK or Europe. You might have noticed the above quirks and more, but you may not have picked up on just how much progress European retailers are making to address food waste.
After all, food waste isn’t something the American consumer is encouraged to think about when we shop for groceries in the US - our retailers want consumers to focus on freshness and abundance, not the wilt and mold that’ll soon transpire in our refrigerators.
UK and EU retailers are tackling food waste - and getting behind a top solution to climate change
In recent years, a flurry of activity by some of the region’s most prominent retailers, like Tesco, Lidl, and Coop, suggests the opposite approach. Rather than shirking from the food going to waste in consumers’ homes, these retailers are working to address it head-on with in-store educational campaigns, changes to packaging, and a streamlined approach to on-pack date labeling. Many of these efforts are guided by compelling research from a leading local non-profit, WRAP.
For example, retailers like Coop, Waitrose, and Asda are removing “best before” on packaged produce and “use by” date labels on dairy products, which confuse consumers into thinking the product is no longer safe and needs to be chucked, even if it still looks fresh and is edible. Meanwhile, Lidl is selling discounted “rescue bags” of produce that don’t meet their visual specification requirements but are still perfectly fit for consumption.
Why the focus on food waste? The food we waste is responsible for roughly 8 percent of global emissions. That means addressing this problem can also be a powerful lever in getting a handle on climate change - food waste reduction has been identified as a top solution to climate change by Project Drawdown in their 2020 report.
Consumer-level food waste is a key piece of the puzzle
A key difference is that European retailers are actively addressing the role that consumers - and packaging - play in the food waste puzzle. While retail-level food waste from handling errors or spoilage also needs to be tackled, residential food waste is an even bigger problem. In the US, 37% of food waste occurred in homes (compared to 13% at the retail level).
In Europe, the role that packaging plays in reducing food waste is a much bigger part of the discussion. The value of plastic-wrapped produce has been carefully studied, and for many fruits and vegetables, debunked, with retailers making changes. Other packaging solutions, like coatings, sensors, and active/intelligent packaging, are all on the table for reducing the spoilage of proteins and dairy along the supply chain and in consumers’ homes.
And no matter the category, all packaging can be used to educate consumers on the best way to store and use up every last bite of food. WRAP advocates for simple changes like on-pack iconography that lets consumers know if a product (like bread) can be frozen and prompts them to store food at the right temperature in their fridge. They also suggest companies offer tips for how to portion food into a meal for two or four people, particularly on larger packs of meat and fish. Here again, European retailers are taking note: for example, In 2022, Co-op announced it would introduce on-pack “freeze me” messaging for their private label milk.
The US food waste prevention landscape has room to grow
The US isn’t without its food waste warriors, of course. Companies and innovators like LeanPath, Too Good To Go, Misfits Market, and Hazel Technologies are all working to tackle the problem of food waste from different angles - by measuring, discounting and incentivizing, redistributing, or slowing down (respectively) the various causes of food waste.
But most of the solutions are coming from disruptors - startups and innovators that are bringing new technologies and business models to the market. Although US retailers like Ahold Delhaize are starting to set food waste reduction goals and join coalitions, such as the Pacific Coast Collaborative, the scope of their work is still primarily focused on business-to-business solutions like food donation or changes to procurement.
Meanwhile, supporting consumers in food waste reduction remains a largely unexplored tactic. American brands and retailers still use a dizzying array of date labels, despite years of guidance on alternative best practices from food waste non-profit, ReFED. Using coatings or on-pack sensors is still rare, with the exception of Apeel Science’s coated cucumbers launched at select Walmart stores in 2020.
And on-pack motivational message and storage tips, arguably the easiest and cheapest intervention of all, are almost nowhere to be found. Your mayonnaise might be telling you to make a sandwich, but when was the last time your pack of hot dogs suggested you freeze some for later?
It’s time for American retailers to guide consumers to less food waste
We need American retailers to lead their consumers to wasting less food at home. And it does appear to come down to leadership - in a 2022 survey of grocery retailers, more than half said they lack management support for prioritizing food waste. Without clear commitments from the top that include both upstream and downstream food waste, it’s not a surprise that the topic hasn’t received as much attention here.
Ultimately, food waste is a climate problem with huge potential for companies. As we enter corporate crunch time for meeting net zero goals and lowering Scope 3 emissions, consumer-level food waste is an untapped example of those downstream impacts. The smartest companies will see helping consumers with the food waste in their homes as a promising way to reduce their own emissions - much in the same way that brands like IKEA have taken on consumer energy and water usage.
Our grocery stores might not be located in frescoed theaters or glamorous food halls. Still, American retailers are well-positioned to flex their incredible branding expertise to empower consumers on food waste. With more innovative private-label packaging, on-pack messaging, and in-store education, meaningful leadership to catalyze actionable change might be just a frozen hot dog away.
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