Conceptual frameworks (packaging)

Conceptual frameworks

Many conceptual frameworks are important for identifying solutions to food packaging problems.  The essential task of governments is to apply these frameworks to the instruments that will guide business and consumer behaviour.  The challenge is to overlap these concepts (and many of them already are) to increase the likelihood of positive and effective outcomes.

Given the way excess packaging consumes significant resources and becomes a pollutant later in life, the key is to identify essential functions  (sometimes referred to as "optimized packaging").  Obviously, supporting product safety and quality, and consumer usability are essential. While much of the conventional focus is on  extending shelf life to reduce food waste, a more nuanced understanding is required. Food waste minimization is critical,  though shelf-life extension, while often framed as food quality and safety, is often about facilitating mass production and distribution in the interests of product homogeneity, longevity and profitability.  As the food system changes in line with the proposals here, there will be an inevitable shortening of supply chains and product longevity which will take some pressure off packaging requirements. Unique packaging as product marketing and differentiation will have to be eliminated. For example, many bottle shapes serve no quality or safety function, but they differentiate the product from those in other bottles.  Consumer convenience, designed to attract customers to a product, will also have to be reduced.  For example, many squeezable bottles for condiments are very convenient and attractive, but it is very difficult to get all the product out of the container, so much food is wasted.  See Goal 4 for more on the parameters of food safety and quality.

Life Cycle Assessment

A key framework for resource minimization is Life Cycle Assessment, LCA.  Although the details of food packaging LCA are still being developed and debated, in part because most food packaging LCAs to date have not fully considered the intersection with food waste,  the conceptual foundations are relatively well established (cf. Pauer et al., 2019).  Within a LCA,   "Sustainable food packaging causes low environmental impacts during production and disposal, provides optimal product protection, is easy to empty, and is as circular as possible. In reality, there are often trade-offs between these objectives." Pauer et al (2019:935). The challenge, then, is to optimize the tradeoffs, informed as well  within the other changes discussed on this site.  However, many existing food packaging LCAs are also criticized for overemphasizing GHG emissions without properly balancing considerations of material efficiency and back-end pollution (Schweitzer et al., 2018). Similarly, food LCAs often fail to properly account for all the indirect negative impacts of packaging  (Molina - Besch et al., 2019). And LCA insufficient on it's own, needs to be combined with other action frames.

5R waste management hierarchy

Although there are some different interpretations in the literature about what comprises the 5Rs, here we use the following:

  • Refuse  and reject goods that can not be handled within the other elements of the hierarchy
  • Reduce use and consumption
  • Reuse (includes Recirculate and Repurpose)
  • Recycle
  • Rot (biomaterials)

Recycling is much lower on the hierarchy than current efforts warrant. Note that his approach to the hierarchy does not include energy from waste.  The infrastructure required for EFW systems is so extensive and expensive, that it creates conditions of surplus accumulation (see Goal 5 Reducing Food Waste).

Extended producer responsibility (EPR)

A "producer’s responsibility (physical and/or financial) for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle. EPR intends to shift responsibility upstream in the product life cycle to the producer and away from municipalities. As a policy approach it intends to provide incentives to producers to incorporate environmental considerations in the design of their products." (Giroux et al., 2014).

The limited waste management legislation and programming in Canada means, however, that incentives are weak to encourage product redesign for waste minimization and resource recovery (especially for multinational firms for which Canada is a small market), and also unclear in the Canadian context (and also in Europe) is whether the market efficiency assumptions of EPR actually work, in other words, it is not yet apparent from the data that EPR will drive the most cost efficient resource recovery approach  (cf. Arnold, 2019).  Although some argue that EPR is the most important solution, the approach taken here is to blend EPR with other concepts and practices to address these realities.

Circular Economy

"The concept of circularity in the context of sustainable production describes the restorative and preservative character of a product. In contrast to a linear product, a circular product contains renewable or recycled content or reused parts and is compostable, recyclable, or reusable, and was produced using renewable energy." (Pauer et al., 2019).

Choice editing

Governments must shape consumer behaviour, not let firms just respond to how they view consumer preferences.  This is because consumers in surveys favour more convenience and more size options (NZWC, 2020), both antithetical to a resource conserving approach.

Supply chain collaboration

Evidence that this helps particularly to reduce secondary and tertiary packaging and in some cases may mean increases in primary for larger savings during transport and lower food waste overall (NZWC, 2020).

Shorter supply chains

Discussed under Goal 1.  Often brings with it shorter shelf life, but to make that work, for many consumers need smaller unit sizes, particularly for perishables

Increased food literacy

Discussed under Goal 3.

Demand - supply coordination

Discussed under Goal 2. Important to align supply packaging with demand dynamics of the retailer and food service operation, including worker health and safety in the demand environment (NZWC, 2020).

Given that most initiatives to date are inconsistent in their application of these core frameworks for guiding action, the solutions proposed focus on the fundamental dimensions of change as identified by these frames.