Our research in short
The key question for our research has been how human behaviour can be integrated in life-cycle assessments of food products. This challenge has been addressed by interdisciplinary research, combining service research and environmental system analysis.
By taking a service perspective, the focus can move from the product itself, to the process it is used for. The product can be described by functions that provide pre-requisites for a service to occur and be experienced, and the product’s functions can influence consumer behaviour. The consumer’s interaction with the product depends on the design of the product, consumer preferences and experience, and the context of the consumer. This means that to design a package that helps consumers to reduce food waste, it is necessary to get insights into how consumers think and act, and the context of the situation in which food is wasted.
For example, consider the packaging attribute contains the desired quantity. If the offered quantity of fresh bread is not the desired amount, the service of eating fresh bread may not occur for the entire loaf. Some may be frozen, some may be eaten “old”, and some may be wasted, depending on consumer preferences and behaviour. Therefore, the size of the loaf can affect the consumer’s behaviour and the amount of food that is wasted. As the number of single and elderly households increases in many countries, it is especially important to offer suitable packaging sizes to avoid food waste.
Other attributes; spillage during handling could also be avoided by the accessibility attributes easy to: open, grip, measure and empty. A wide range of consumers handles packaging. About one-third of a group of elderly consumers reported that spillage occurred frequently in connection with opening. In a British study, about half of the avoidable food waste was due to it not being used in time; about one-third was prepared food and the remaining waste was due to spillage and similar accidents.
Food safety/freshness information is also important. One of the most important reasons for food waste is consumer confusion about date coding. “Best before”, “Sell by”, “Use by” and other dating nomenclature that indicates the premium quality period are treated as dates after which the food should be thrown away. These misconceptions cause substantial food waste, both at the retailer (food items with “short” dates are rejected) and at home. Food waste could probably be reduced with better information on the packaging that explains the dating system, if and when the food item could be unhealthy, and how the consumer could judge the quality of the food item.
A more comprehensive description of packaging attributes is given in our publications.
To analyse how packaging attributes and behaviour influence the environmental impact of packaging, we are working with scenario techniques and LCA. The potential environmental impact of different packaging attributes and consumer behaviour with regard to food waste and packaging attributes are analysed, and the likelihood for certain behaviours based on hypothesis or empirical evidence are discussed
An important question is if it can be justifiable from an environmental point of view to increase the environmental impact of the packaging in order to achieve a reduction in food waste. We have developed a LCA model that includes food waste, both upstream (production, processing and distribution) and downstream (waste handling).
The model has been used to analyse a number of food products. For products with high environmental impact, such as meat, rice and dairy products, the environmental impact of the packaging can multiply if small reductions of food waste can be achieved. This means that a packaging developer can feel free to improve packaging attributes – in smaller sizes, that are easier to empty, etc – if food waste can be avoided.
On the other hand, for products with less difference between the environmental impact of the food content and the packaging (e.g. ketchup in a hard plastic bottle) the environmental focus should be to reduce the impact of the packaging at the same time as food waste is reduced. Therefore, it is important not to discuss the environmental relations between packaging and food waste in general terms; assessment must be made of individual products.
The next step is to identify how much of the food waste can be linked to packaging attributes, and which packaging attributes are most important for different food products. This knowledge is necessary in order to develop packaging for specific products that reduces food waste.