The Role of Packaging in Preventing – and Causing – Food Waste

CPIR | 2021-04-12

You might have heard one of the most alarming statistics about our society’s waste – that as much as 40% of all food in the United States isn’t eaten and is thrown away. This is wholesome, edible food that could feed those in need. To put this into perspective, about 30% of food is wasted around the world. Why does all this food get wasted? Does the problem lie with individual behavior, or further up the supply chain with producers, distributors, and retailers? How could packaging play a role in minimizing this food waste?

The non-profit ReFED’s Insights Engine is a tool that identifies solutions to move the food system to solve our national food waste problem. It has mapped out the financial and climate benefits of a number of solutions, including portion sizes, meal kits, consumer education campaigns, and standardized date labeling.

Packaging-related solutions were found to be critical for reducing food waste. Direct packaging solutions such as improved package design and active and intelligent packaging have a combined net financial benefit of $4.13 billion dollars. Changes to packaging design can also help divert 650,000 tons of food waste and save 120 billion gallons of water per year.

Clearly, there is an incredible opportunity to harness improved and optimized packaging design to reduce food waste. In our new course, The Essentials of Packaging and Food Waste, we review where and why food waste takes place, examine the connection between packaging and food waste, explore opportunities for improved packaging design, and look at new innovations such as sensors, coatings, and smart packaging that reduce food waste.

To address food waste, the course first examines packaging features that can prevent food waste, and how poor design can also be the cause of food waste. Here are three design elements to consider:

Resealability and Closures 

57% of consumers in one survey said they wanted more resealable packaging. In addition to being highly desired by consumers, resealability can help prevent food waste by protecting the product and improving perceived freshness.  There are many product categories that may benefit from resealable zippers, lids, or other closures to help maintain product freshness. These include packaging for items such as cereal, grains, nuts, cheese, raw and deli meat, and many others.

It’s important to note that resealable features such as zippers, lids, films, or ties are often not recyclable or can render a packaging not recyclable. They may also require the packaging to use more material overall. The decision to add these features should be balanced with an understanding of how consumers store and consume the product and some understanding, ideally based on data or consumer research, that resealability would help to reduce food waste.

Pack Sizes

A wider variety of pack sizes for all kinds of foods helps to address new trends in household size, purchasing habits, and awareness of appropriate portions. By better understanding consumer requirements and providing smaller portion packs, companies can help reduce food waste from both opened food that spoils, as well as from consumers cooking too much food. For example, a 500-gram pack of fish filets can be provided in dual 250 gram sealed packs, and the consumer may choose to cook one filet instead of the entire 500 grams.


Product visibility can have important implications for food waste, as well as for the recyclability of packaging. Oftentimes, packaging aims to provide a view into the product, particularly when the contents are fresh, such as produce. Consider visibility as a possible design feature to apply when consumers use color, shape, or texture to determine freshness.

For other products, packaging that is opaque or dark may actually help to protect the contents and extend shelf life. In the case of potato packaging, visibility into the product may cause the potatoes to turn green and be thrown away due to toxicity concerns.

Much of the packaging on the market today lacks these important features. The time has come for manufacturers, brands, and retailers to redesign packaging with resealability, consideration of the visibility of contents, a variety of pack and product sizes, and improved product evacuation in mind. Improved packaging design will help retailers and consumers make a substantial dent in the 40% of food that is wasted, particularly when a smarter design is paired with standardized date labeling and simple storage and usage information.

University of Technology’s Centre for Packing Innovations and Research (PITC) is a member of Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

Published: Sustainable Packaging Coalition