Responsible food packaging could connect consumers to the environment

David Luttenberger

September 1, 2016

As Americans take notice of increasingly strained global food resources, research reveals that 80% U.S. food shoppers agree that reducing food waste is as important as reducing packaging waste. To limit waste, half (52%) of consumers indicate they would prefer to buy foods with minimal or even no packaging, according to Mintel’s 2016 US Food Packaging Report.

As they look to extend the life of the food products they buy, 81% of consumers say they would choose resealable packaging over non-resealable packaging, and more than half (54%) would pay more for packaging with added features, such as being resealable or portion controlled, with three in 10 (30%) often reusing food packaging for other purposes. However, recycling of food packaging is far from a universal behavior, as just two in five (42%) consumers report recycling most of the food packaging they use.

A lack of clear communication on labels may be a contributor to the relatively low recycling rate, as 25% of consumers agree that it’s not always clear which food packaging is recyclable. Further, only 13% of consumers make an effort to avoid foods in packaging that cannot be recycled.

“Our research shows that reducing food waste is top of mind for consumers,” says John Owen, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel. “This presents opportunities for food brands and retailers to address these concerns through innovative packaging and product messaging.” However, in 2015, just one in five (21%) food product introductions in the U.S. included on-pack claims regarding environmentally friendly packaging. To combat this, Mintel’s global packaging team has been sharing details and opportunities with packaging converter, brand owner and retailer clients about the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle label, which provides consumers with hyper-local, actionable information on package recycling.

“The prevention of food waste can be positioned not only as a good way for consumers to save money, but also as a way to work toward reversing the growing food waste trend through conscious consumption,” says Owen. That conscious consumption element could also spur brands to embrace the SmartLabel app (, which affords shoppers and consumers with instant access to a much wider range of product ingredient, nutrition and allergen information, which could help lead to less food waste and, perhaps, a more responsible approach to packaging as well.

Snack packaging and waste

With snacking on the rise among on-the-go Americans, single-serve food packaging is growing in popularity. In fact, 36% of consumers are interested in packaging that allows food to be eaten on the go, while nearly one quarter (23%) often buy individually portioned packs.

“Package innovation is playing a key role as food retailers respond to an ongoing shift away from the traditional three sit-down meals a day in favor of snacking and on-the-go eating,” says Owen.

What’s more, 56% of consumers would be motivated to select one food product over another if its packaging better prevented food from going bad. When it comes to the more perishable food items purchased, smaller packages appear to be the way to go, as they can lead to less food waste. Indeed, Mintel research reveals that more than half (53%) of consumers agree fresh produce spoils before they can eat/use it and about two in five (41%) would pay more for vegetables that come in single-serve packages.

What consumers are not aware of is the relationship between single-serve packaging and true eco-responsibility. Most commonly, consumers mistakenly believe a smaller package is better for the environment.

To further build trust and increase purchase confidence, brands and manufacturers should seize the opportunity to build in on-pack messaging about eco-responsible packaging and when and where it makes more sense to buy larger size packages and then use reusable containers or snack/sandwich bags for on-the-go consumption. Mintel research shows that 63% of U.S. consumers actively seek out packages they can re-use. While they ultimately either want to or will recycle those packages, they are also seeking the opportunity for a secondary or alternative use occasion before they recycle them.

“The more access consumers are given about the true environmental responsibility of various pack types, the better purchasing decisions they will be able to make,” says Owen.


David Luttenberger is the global packaging director at Mintel. He has 24 years’ packaging experience. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also follow him on Twitter at @packaginggeek.


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