Food waste occurs all the way along the production chain, from farm to table. It is believed that one third of food produced for human consumption, at least 1.3 billion tonnes, is lost or wasted per year. A shocking 520 million tonnes is believed to be lost on the farm, due to poor storage and handling. And this continues post-harvest due to inadequate storage, transportation, processing and cooling facilities, lack of infrastructure, or poor packaging and marketing systems. 

The Postharvest Education Foundation estimates that globally, post-harvest losses and food waste account for 30% to 40% of production. It says losses of perishable foods such as fruits and vegetables can be even higher than those for staple foods during the post-harvest period, depending on the weather, access to storage or distance from markets.

With better storage and transportation, not only will there be less food waste, but also better nutrient content for the consumer at the end of the food chain, and a huge reduction in the carbon footprint left by the process of food production.

One of the Sustainable Development Goals states that by 2030 we should reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses, and cut in half per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels.

Companies are now realising that packaging is key to tackling the post-harvest food waste issue. The Postharvest Education Foundation says many choose poorly, focusing on cosmetic features rather than qualities such as strength, cleanliness, ventilation, and moisture control which would help extend shelf life. 

Chemical company Dupont has developed the h20ex, a polyester film cover for food containers with a high water vapour transmission rate that reduces mold and product weight loss, with the hope to extend the shelf life of food.

A company called Sealed Air is now developing modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) technologies which use permeable plastics and customises the levels of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide in the packaging to the needs of specific foods. Preliminary studies suggest that MAP controls ripening, reduces water loss in stored products and is more hygienic for stored produce, preventing the spread of food-borne diseases. Additionally, the company claims the low oxygen environment reduces mold growth, retains volatile compounds to ensure freshness when opening, preserves the appearance and taste and also protects produce during shipment.

On average, food travels 1,640 kms, and 6,760 kms in the life-cycle supply chain so ensuring it reaches the consumer quickly, with maximal nutritional value intact and undamaged, is challenging. 

As with everything, there are pros and cons. Dr. Lisa Kitinoja, director of The Post-Harvest Institute suggests ways around single-use packaging must be found, in favour of biodegradable and multi-use packaging. She suggests that governments have a role to play - that they must invest in education services that train farmers in low-cost packaging use and post-harvest loss prevention, even directing funds towards low-interest loans for farmers to adapt loss prevention packaging and techniques.

Parakh Agro Industries in India developed a low-cost film pouch using DuPont’s Bynel tie layer resin technology to keep UHT milk fresh without refrigeration for 90 days. However, there is always a balance between reducing packaging and reducing waste. The food producer is now exploring selling wheat flour in reusable plastic jars, and in some cases, paper sacks with a protective coating, being developed by a Swedish company on a mission to transform packaging, Billerud Korsnas, which is looking at everything from bags to hot drinks cups, food cartons to cement sacks, in a bid to reduce waste in a sustainable way. The company is custom making packaging with a specialism in bringing products from Asia, knowing the challenges of long-distance transportation. 

At Harvard’s Wyss Institute, researchers have developed a fully degradable bioplastic using a material found in shrimp shells, Chitosan. They describe it as “a form of chitin, which is a tough polysaccharide that is responsible for the hardy shells of shrimp and other crustaceans, armour-like insect cuticles, and flexible butterfly wings”. When placed in compost, it quickly biodegrades, and the team say it is far tougher than current bioplastics.

And in the US, MonoSol has developed a range of transparent ethylene-based polymers that dissolve in water. Applications include the likes of dishwasher or laundry pods, agrochemicals or cosmetics, but now, that extends to food. The company says it can be used to produce a water soluble film that can used as packaging for many products such as spices, food colouring and oils, and potentially much more such as rice, oats, pasta and cocoa powder, without any loss to flavour, smell, taste or texture.

These challenges are not easily overcome. Packaging solutions need to be sustainable, ensuring food stays fresh and healthy, without adding more burden to the planet. Alternatives to single-use plastic are out there and growing, while enthusiasm from scientists to provide these answers, is strong. The answers lie in collaboration, all the way from the government to the farmers, consumers to retailers, in order for everyone to benefit. 

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