Your Experiences with Food Packaging Waste

Food systems and packaging is something that affects everyone, from the farm to the market, to our homes, and back into the environment.

What experiences have you had around food systems as a food and tech expert, or even just as a citizen? Whether it’s with advanced technical concepts around packaging innovation, or just getting rid of your packaging waste; is there anywhere you have seen improvements in the way food is packaged, brought to you, used, and/or discarded?

We’d love to see any thoughts, examples, or experiences you’ve had as a starter on exploring the concepts around an impactful breakthrough in food systems.

For more info, here’s a New York Times article that explores some of the ideas around a circular food economy. Can supermarkets use (or even produce) more local food? How can we reduce packaging? Can byproducts like the water from food production be used to grow more new food, or can vertical farms help produce food closer to population centers?

We look forward to your anecdotes, feedback, and ideas!

To get things started, I thought I’d talk a little about my own experience with food packaging. I moved to San Francisco in 2010 where waste management had been prioritized for a few decades by that point. I noticed very quickly how much less trash I was producing due to the city-wise composting collection that was going on, as well as my own habits of buying unpackaged food. The 2007 city-wide ban on styrofoam had also caught my attention, since all my take out boxes could be composted. I read more about the worker-owned waste management facility and learned all about industrial composting as a diverter of organic based materials from landfills. I often wondered, why wasn’t my home town this productive with trash? What is it about San Francisco that allows this process to happen? Now that I’m in Los Angeles I cringe at the amount of plastic I throw away every day, and the more I learn about recycling during this prize design the more I see the urgent need for a closed packaging lifecycle and new options beyond petroleum-based plastics. In my perfect world, the convenience of packaging would be combined with the eco-friendliness of putting eggshells from your chicken coop into your herb garden. What about you?

Here in Barcelona, the supermarkets have replaced the plastic bags they used to provide for fruit and fresh produce with biodegradable bags that you can recycle as trash bags.

At home, we choose to shop at small local farms, markets and the local “refillery” where we bring our own containers and reusable bags. At the refillery we can refill everything from shampoo, dish soap, laundry detergents and natural beauty products to olive oil, honey, frozen fruit, dried food and other common pantry items. Reusable lunch bags, sandwich bags, and bees wax linen wraps to replace plastic wraps can all be found at the natural grocer.

As a chef, I have always been aware of the waste created by the foodservice industry. In restaurants, commercial foodservice, and in grocery stores, the amount of waste is atrocious. Here are a few examples of sustainable efforts that can been made:
Recycle, Compost all waste, Reduce water usage, Energy-efficient light bulbs, Nest thermostat, Recycled menu paper or menu board, Energy conservation, Water conservation, Pollution prevention, Sustainable food procurement.

@Joanne this is great info! Would yo mind sharing a little more on the specific names of the places you go? Also, how is Covid affecting your ability to be sustainable with your shopping and food packaging?

@Joanne great stuff! I am not as knowledgeable as you on how to shop, but I have recently been focusing on living more simply at home. And its embarrassing how far I have to go. As a founder of a start-up apparel company that aims to rethink supply chains, waste is a big factor in our design principles. And part of that includes starting with self; so this topic is helpful to keep me accountable to those changes. Obviously apparel is not food, but from what I have studied, agriculture, manufacturing, and distribution are similar for apparel and food (at least in the West/US–though we don’t make much of either food or apparel in the US). At minimum the mindset of companies in their approach is similar. Which, as I ramble, brings to mind something near and dear to my heart–how do we develop the capacities to think differently across a society? Hope this was useful/helpful/what is being looked for?

From my little experience in refrigerated transportation, it gets a bit interesting from the wooden pallets which are reused, to the boxes used to stack the products, to the thin nylon used to protect some produce and the temperature-controlled trailers required to transport. It plays a strong role in the quality delivered. When I visit Nigeria, I see produce shipped in open-air trailers, squeezed and bruised before getting to the distributor. Different spectrums and in all, constant innovation cannot go wrong. Some of the waste in the US easily goes to Foodbanks or third-party vendors who turn some to puree or furnish soup kitchens.

@nmgraham Any bulk food store would offer some of these options, even the Bulk Barn is stepping up their game. In Canada, I shop at Daisy, a reffilery for household and beauty products and Gather Grocery for grocery items. Online in the US is a fantastic resource and
In terms of Covid, I have been living in my place in Costa Rica, where I make almost everything from scratch and have nearly zero waste because of food prep practices. That being said, I think many people are ordering their food online and I must mention that the amount of plastic and packaging that is used by companies such as Amazon is also atrocious.

@Thanku Amazing yes, we need to be conscious in every industry, from manufacturing to distribution, sales and what is the destiny of the actual product? Where will en up at the end of its “lifespan”?

A very good question to ask about how we can influence a mindset shift in society. I think this is naturally happening gradually as more and more people become aware of their personal impact on the planet. However, we must somehow bring low-income families out of poverty, to assist them in ascending Maslov’s “hierarchy of needs”. As priorities shift, from basic needs to safety needs and then to love and belonging, they will create withing themselves a capacity to see the bigger picture and sense the connection between everything.

@iduaolunwa I agree, innovation is key, but with conscious awareness of the connection between all of life on earth and the consequences of our actions as producers. I’m glad that some waste makes it to food banks!

There is a great opportunity here in terms of food waste from the restaurant industry and I bet we can do better along all of the supply chains to reduce waste.

@NickOttens, have you seen any examples in Barcelona of locally-sourced food and circular food economy concepts?
@Joanne and @iduaolunwa, transport can be such a critical component of circular food systems in any region. Are there any stories you’ve heard that were particularly inspiring in reducing food waste, both for transport and at the consumers’ end?
And as a chef @Joanne, is there any systems or areas of opportunity within kitchens and restaurants that you think could make for a particularly impactful innovation?

@Joanne The restaurants sure generate a lot of waste and a few are able to find kitchens to donate to and others shy away for liability issues. There is a lot of room there esp where the food could feed others. In transportation, poor packaging either leads to products falling off the stack which often get rejected or in some cases, freezing. Both are very common in cold chain logistics.
@NickAzer Blending and freezing produce and fruits like tomatoes/pepper/bananas/melons to puree is an active form of preservation.

I know a lot of the fish, meat, fruit, etc. that’s sold in the (super)markets here is local - or at least from Spain. That’s nothing new, though.

I’m not sure about circular-food initiatives. I do know there are initiatives to reduce food waste. See here.

There was a Netflix episode of “Broken” about recycling sham: "Broken" Recycling Sham (TV Episode 2019) - IMDb
Shifting responsibility to consumers, rather than banning single-use plastic.
From my book: System Change - Actionable Policies to Handle Climate Emergency


In my view, the danger with recycling is the “feel good” and “I’m doing my part” attitude, while in fact it doesn’t matter.

I suggest all packaging being 100% reusable. You don’t clean it. You return it a local shop and get $0.50 deposit back. It is then properly cleaned, you as a consumer do not have to spend energy on proper cleaning. Just throw away the ugly bits but do not spend energy on hot water to clean it as it will be cleaned properly at a processing plant.

(current process with glass involved crushing in melting, hardly any recycling is actually reused)

There are some local community schemes, quick search away: - plenty of schemes like this, now only to scale up to a global supply chain level.

The accelerator that I co-founded, Food System 6, is currently running a circular economy startup challenge sponsored by Huhtamaki, a Finland-Based multinational packaging company. Applications close August 15th, at which point FS6 will review and select entrepreneurs to participate in its accelerator program. We’ll know a lot more soon… but for now, details are available at Huhtamaki Circular Economy Start Up Program - Food System 6 and a short video here: The Huhtamaki Circular Economy Program by Food System 6 - YouTube – I’m also closely tracking developments in mycology that are relevant here.

@marsxr , that is a very interesting point I haven’t thought of; the fact that consumer washing of recycling is actually wasting valuable resources. There have been some advances in waste management surrounding this step, where facilities will actually do the washing/organic digesting themselves, however my research is early so I don’t have a good understanding on how widely used these processes are. The idea of deposit based packaging has definitely been thrown around a bit, with some startups already implementing some level of reusable containers. To play devils advocate, what are some issues that you think could arise from this? Would setting a $.50 deposit limit certain consumers based on income? Or would is create it’s own problem with consumers who don’t think twice about $.50?

@RenskeLynde , thanks for this info! I will be sharing the video with my teammates, @Eti @BryanNamba and @Caroline . From your perspective, what are some of the largest challenges start-ups are experiencing from market barriers? Which ones do you think an accelerator can address and which are systemic?

@RenskeLynde Thank you for your comment, the areas you are working on, as mentioned in this video, as very aligned with the spirit of the prize design. We actually spoke with a member of your second cohort (Full Cycle Bioplastics). It would be wonderful if you can share some insights about the four categories areas mentioned in the video (waste diversion, packaging, material innovation, and regenerative production) - do innovators tend to combine b/w these categories? is there investor interest in one area or more? Who is that target market/audience (i.e., consumer, big corporations, boutique brands)?

Many companies address the food waste problem with software tools targeted
to these segments. For instance, Copia (US) connects food stores with charities to provide them with unsold produce. In Europe, Too Good To Go is a mobile app where users can find stores and restaurants around them selling cheap yet delicious meals that would otherwise be wasted.

Inventory is one of the greatest costs of running your restaurant. You need ingredients to make the meals, but ordering too much can impact your cash flow and if food spoils you are throwing away money. We help you predicts the inventory you need and makes managing the process easier and more efficient using AI.