Waste not, want not

Robert Fell, Director and Chief Executive at Metal Packaging Manufacturers Association, looks at the role metal packaging can play in the war against food waste. 

How the wise words of our forebears come back to haunt us.  Some of us still remember a time when food waste was almost unheard of and a ‘waste not, want not’ attitude prevailed.  

But over the years we got complacent and became, to our detriment, a throwaway society where waste was no longer seen as such as issue and so efforts were not made to deal with it. Sadly, this lack of attention also appears to have extended to the world’s food production as well.  

According to the Food and Agriculture Group of the United Nations, roughly one-third of all the food produced in the world for human consumption every year (approximately 1.3 billion tonnes) gets lost or wasted.  

The Group estimates that losses amount to thirty per cent for cereals, forty to fifty per cent for root crops, fruits and vegetables, and twenty per cent for oil seeds, meat and dairy, and around a third for fish. 

Consider this alongside a rapidly expanding world population (7.8 billion 2020 to 9.7 billion 2050) and it’s clear that something has to change to stem the loss of both produce and more natural habitat to agriculture. 

Of course this is not news to packaging manufacturers, brand owners and retailers who have toiled for years to find ways to store and keep food for longer, extending shelf life while retaining nutrient value. But sadly, waste reduction has not always been the top priority when considered alongside other factors such as price and novelty.   

Now though, priorities have shifted and waste reduction sits right at the top of the agenda, and in this respect the can really comes into its own.   

One of MPMA’s member companies, Crown Holdings, recently commissioned a study on this very topic from Delaware University in the US.  Entitled “Effects of Metal Packaging on Energy & Food Waste (Crown Holdings)”, the study calculated that for the United States and Canada alone, 342.4 million litres of food lossis avoided each year due to the fact that it is packed in metal food cans. 

Now though, priorities have shifted and waste reduction sits right at the top of the agenda, and in this respect the can really comes into its own.   

Extrapolate this figure across the rest of the world and it’s estimated that the use of food cans eliminates a staggering one billion litres of food waste per year at consumer level alone. Just imagine how large the figure would be if it also included the use of food cans at the retail level too. 

The study also suggested that if the entire USA fruit and vegetable supply were canned (rather than packaged for refrigeration or freezing) the estimated saving would be around seven million metric tonnes of food, equivalent to saving around 22 million metric tonnes of CO2. 

But food waste and CO2 reduction are not metal’s only sustainability benefits, it also impacts upon reducing other forms of waste such as energy for refrigeration. 

Unlike many other types of food packaging, products in metal cans require no refrigeration at any time, not in transport, in storage, in retail or at home.  And their ambient temperature storage provides another benefit linked to heating of food.  

Take tinned soup for example: a can of soup will only need to be heated up from ambient temperature of say 18 – 20°CCompare this to refrigerated soup, which would typically be heated from 4°C. This difference in starting temperature equates to a surprising 15 per cent difference in energy requirements to heat the soup to serving temperature 

So, if we calculated how many refrigerated soup packs were sold each year across the world, we could multiply up that 27.20kJ per pack to see how much energy and then CO2could be saved by just using tinned soup. 

It’s no accident that cans have such great longevity.  Much has changed, they’re lighter, easier to open, and the range of contents is vast. Much remains the same though, including a shelf life that truly impacts on food waste reduction at all levels. As far as ‘waste not, want not’ goes, cans do us proud. 


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