Shelf Life, Food Waste, and Sustainability

Sometimes it is more sustainable to use more packaging instead of less. This is due to the packaging’s ability to protect the product. When designed right, packaging can extend shelf life, protect the product, and decrease food waste. According to the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCEPEN), on average, the resources used in the making of packaging saves ten times more resources of the products it protects. When products are damaged, the product and the materials used to make the product are wasted. The product then must be remade and the old products often disposed.

Packaging Design

The packaging also needs to be designed in order to protect the product and decrease the amount of food waste when applicable. Packages that are not optimized could lead to an increase in food waste. Packaging size and design cause 20% to 25% of all residential food waste according to ReFED. Leftover food in the product can contaminate the recycling stream or lead to greenhouse gas emissions in landfills depending on the product’s end of life. Leftover food can be due to expired food or the consumer not being able to remove all of the product.  Sometimes it is better to make packages smaller so that the standard customer can use all of the product before it expires. Decreasing the amount of product a package holds will lead to more materials being used for the same amount of product.


Another important factor is the material of the packaging. Certain materials have properties that are useful for certain applications. Sometimes packaging that is harder to recycle can help to protect the product better. For example, olives stored in PET packaging have a shelf life of a few weeks and need to be stored in the refrigerator. This is due to the PET lacking an oxygen barrier. However, when stored in a laminated composite package, which has a barrier to oxygen, the olives have a shelf life of months at room temperature. Another example is how the addition of a plastic film to a cucumber increases the shelf life to two weeks when refrigerated. It is important to consider the application of the packaging when deciding on the material to use.   Sustainable packaging includes the optimization of the packaging design and materials. Choosing the correct design and materials can lead to benefits such as increased shelf life, decreased food waste, and decreased product damage. Decreasing the amount of product wasted will decrease its impacts. This is due to the end of life impacts from the wasted product and the impacts of the materials needed to remake the product. However, it is important to note that over packaging can lead to a greater environmental impact without further benefits in increasing shelf life, decreasing damage rate, and decreasing food waste. Trayak has been helping leading brands of all sizes make data-driven sustainability decisions for over 10 years. If you would like to learn more about our tools and services please contact us.


INCPEN evidence explains how PACKAGING prevents waste. (2018, April 10). ReFED. (2016). A Roadmap to Reduce Food Waste by 20 Percent: Foundation Action Guide.

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