Meat production is considered as one of the most environmentally impacting products of the food-industry. Estimations consider for example that a kilogram of beef produces 13.3 kg of CO2,eq. Given the high environmental burden of meat production, limiting meat waste represents a first step towards diminishing its overall environmental impact. Packaging is responsible for a part of this food waste and can therefore help win this battle.
This case study uses data form Wikstrom et al. 2016. The study compares two very different concepts of packaging for minced beef, as represented in the picture below. The polyamide (PA) tube (left side packaging) weights only 25 % of the PET tray. The functional unit was 1 kg of eaten minced beef.
Picture 1. Foto of two different packaging concepts for minced beef. Picture from Wikstrom et al. 2016.
Table 1. Components of the studied beef packaging
|PET Tray packaging
|Polyamide Tube packaging
|Film, plastic label, paper label
|Aluminium clips, LDPE label
|Total packaging mass (g):
A widely used means of ecodesign is the reduction of the total mass used for the packaging to a functional minimum. From this perspective, the PA tube packaging is very efficient. Assuming equivalent recycling rates of both concepts of packaging, the PA tube has the lower climate change potential (CC) and acidification potential (AP). When considering different recycling rates for the materials, the difference between both packagings diminishes. At 100 % of recycling of the PET tray and not recycling of the PA tube, the PET can perform better. Therefore, the end-of-life (EOL) treatment of a packaging is an essential aspect packaging design. This EOL treatment depends on the existing local waste treatment facilities but also on consumer behaviour. In this case study, the author underlines that numerous aspects of the PA tube packaging (presence of aluminium which is difficult to separate, difficulty of cleaning the tube...) could encourage the consumer to throw it away with the household garbage and without separating the aluminium closure. In that case, the EOL treatment would be a mix of incineration and landfill given by the local infrastructure.
This example shows the importance of correctly informing consumers waste separation and to help them by adapted design.
The difference between "bought food" (B) and "eaten food" (e) is occasioned by the loss of food in the packaging and in the preparation process. Wikström and Williams (2010) and (2014) developed an easy model to account for the impact of food losses (BL) due to packaging:
e = B - BL.
Attributes like practicality, easy-to-empty and preservation of food quality are essential to food packaging in the aim to decrease food losses. The impact of the lost food on the overall environmental performance of the PET tray and PA tube was tested. In average, approximately 10 g of minced beef were lost in the PA tube, because they sticked to the packaging and the closure sides were difficult to empty, while the PET tray could be emptied fully and easily.
Figure 1. Evolution of CC of different meet packaging concepts including food losses as a function of the recycling percentage of the packaging material, adapted from Wikstrom et al. 2016.
Taking into account the lost food, the PA tube performed worse in all impact categories tested (CC, AP, depletion of ozone layer), no matter the EOL treatment.
The design of the packaging is essential to prevent food losses, which add a heavy contribution to the environmental burden of the food/packaging system. This is of particular importance in the case of highly impacting foods, such as meat.
This case study show the multiplicity of factors that should be taken into account when designing a packaging: End-of-life treatment, logistics, consumer behaviour and knowledge and finally food waste. Therefore the holistic methodology proposed by Sven could answer that problem. Finally, it can be noticed that for a product for such an important environmental impact, food-waste is identified as the key element.
F. Wikström, H. Williams, G. Venkatesh, The influence of packaging attributes on recycling and food waste behaviour – An environmental comparison of two packaging alternatives, Journal of Cleaner Production, 137 (2016) 895-902. online paper
H. Williams, F. Wikstrom, Environmental impact of packaging and food losses in a life cycle perspective: a comparative analysis of five food items, Journal of Cleaner Production, 19 (2011) 43-48. online paper
H. Williams, F. Wikström, T. Otterbring, M. Löfgren, A. Gustafsson, Reasons for household food waste with special attention to packaging, Journal of Cleaner Production, 24 (2012) 141-148. online paper
F. Wikström, H. Williams, K. Verghese, S. Clune, The influence of packaging attributes on consumer behaviour in food-packaging life cycle assessment studies - A neglected topic, Journal of Cleaner Production, 73 (2014) 100-108. online paper