Farm to Fork Strategy: an opportunity to rethink the role of packaging in the transition towards sustainable food systems


Citeo, the French company in charge of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for household packaging and graphic papers, fully supports the Farm to Fork Strategy presented by the European Commission in May 2020 as part of the European Green Deal. Aiming to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally friendly, this initiative is a unique opportunity to rethink the role of packaging in the transition towards sustainable food systems. 

When considering accelerating the EU’s transition to sustainable food systems, packaging has a decisive role to play. As underlined by the European Economic and Social Committee, “there is an urgent need to improve the sustainability of our food systems, which includes also the development of more sustainable food packaging” . Sustainable food packaging is about minimising the environmental impacts of food packaging as part of improving the sustainability of the packed food, reducing food waste, while preserving food quality and consumer safety.

Food packaging represents two-thirds of total EU packaging in terms of market share value2. Essential properties in terms of storage, handling, transportation and preservation of food make packaging a necessity. At the same time, food packaging causes rising concerns on environment due to its high production volume and often short use time, as well as problems related to littering and waste management. Alongside manufacturing, processing, retailing and transportation, packaging is considered as a “major contribution to air, soil and water pollution and GHG emissions, and has a profound impact on biodiversity”.

In order to become sustainable, food packaging has to shift towards a circular model where resource use and waste are reduced, and reuse and recycling encouraged.

The need to consider the food product and its packaging together

Packaging has become a major concern in the food sector, both from the point of view of producers and consumers. While food safety is and should remain the overarching priority, consumers increasingly pay attention to the quality and environmental impacts of the food products they buy, and also that of the packaging which contains these products. In response to this increasing public awareness and demand for sustainable food packaging, companies and retailers are more and more subscribing to an approach aimed at reducing packaging’s environmental impacts4, strongly incentivised by the EU current and future policy and legislation on circular economy, packaging and plastics, which are all relevant for food packaging.

In addition to these trends, the food industry has to take into account the effects of the current global pandemic, consisting of both opportunities and risks. Indeed, while the Covid-19 crisis has resulted in an increasing use of plastic food packaging for health safety reasons, relegating to a certain extent the sustainability issue to a secondary role, the impact of the virus on long supply food chains of imported food has also encouraged consumers to shift towards more local food production, that can lead to food packaging reduction. If this trend towards sustainable food consumption is maintained over time, producers will have to develop more sustainable packaging solutions because consumers expect a sustainable product to be in sustainable packaging.

This need to consider the packaging not in isolation but in combination with the product it contains, is reflected for instance in consumers’ growing demand to ensure that organic products are not packaged or when they are, in a sustainable way.

The same reflection could be made when considering consumer information. The Farm to Fork Strategy provides for several measures to empower consumers to make informed, healthy and sustainable food choices, among which the creation of a sustainable labelling framework that will cover nutritional but also climate, environmental and social aspects of food products, a measure reaffirmed within the framework of the New Consumer Agenda published by the Commission last week. Although packaging represents a small percentage of the overall environmental impact of the packed food, Citeo is convinced that a labelling system informing consumers about the sustainability of food products should necessarily include the packaging’s environmental impacts, both direct and indirect. In addition to direct environmental effects largely arising via production and disposal, there are also adverse environmental impacts caused by inadequate packaging, such as packaging-related food waste, that are insufficiently considered in the current food products’ life cycle analysis (LCA). We believe that considering packaging in combination with the product it contains would prevent producers from opting for alternative packaging seen as more sustainable but in reality less environmentally friendly when considering its indirect environmental impacts, and would help consumers to make the best choices regarding both the packed food and the packaging. The difficulty lies in the capacity to resolve these potential conflicts of interest and trade-offs between direct and indirect environmental effects of packaging. Citeo recommends using LCAs to help companies decide on the most sustainable and suitable solution for their packaging.

The need to develop solutions to shift towards a circular model of food packaging

When developing sustainable food packaging, the priority should be given to measures and actions reducing (over) packaging, in line with the EU waste hierarchy. However, the environmental burden caused by the possible food loss resulting from reducing the amount of packaging can have a much more significant environmental impact than packaging waste. This observation should not prevent the development of alternatives such as edible packaging, which may be relevant for certain applications. Even more than for other packaging categories, there is no one size fit all solution with food packaging.

If the most common solution adopted by food companies opting for more sustainable packaging is the switch to alternative materials to replace single use plastics, moving away from the throw away culture can also be achieved through the development of reuse.

Citeo, through its open innovation programme “Circular Challenge”, aims at supporting emerging solutions via the financing of projects which enhance the environmental performance of existing initiatives or those under development, while guaranteeing that the solutions can be scaled to industrial processes. Many innovative and concrete reuse solutions have thus been identified and supported by Citeo, both in France and abroad.

Pandobac: a service of reusable containers available to wholesalers for the delivery of fresh products replacing single-use packaging

Born in 2018 from the realization that food delivery packaging generates large amounts of waste in restaurants, Pandobac offers a service replacing disposable packaging with reusable containers to any type of wholesaler or supplier. The reusable containers are designed in PP or HDPE single material to ensure they are recyclable. 200 000 disposable packages have already been avoided. This French start-up also provides monitoring and cleaning services, thus closing the loop of the circular economy. Reducing packaging waste while promoting short circuits and the local economy, Pandobac was awarded with the Circular Challenge’s collaborative innovation and territory prize by Citeo in 2019.

While the majority of reuse in France is captured by the B2B segments (either coffee hotel restaurant circuits or industrial packaging), most reuse initiatives are currently developing on the B2C market, driven by local initiatives.

Jean Bouteille: a solution that combines bulk and reuse to transform consumption habits 

Jean Bouteille combines the bulk sale of liquids with a deposit system for bottles to allow consumers to purchase liquid products without generating waste. This French start-up created in 2012 in the North of France offers food stores organic liquid food products, equipment specialized for the bulk sale of these products, as well as reusable bottles. This initiative, selected as finalist of the Circular Challenge in 2017, fully meets Citeo’s overarching goal of reducing the amount of packaging placed on the market and extending the packaging’s shelf life when reduction is not possible, while relying on consumer mobilization and engagement. To support bars and brewers in the context of the Covid-19, Jean Bouteille also helps them bottle their beers to allow take-away solutions.

As they can help achieve the needed systemic changes in our production and consumption patterns and have already proven to be effective in the beverage sector, reuse systems need to be further promoted to enhance the sustainability of food packaging, as a complement to recycling solutions that are also relevant and need to be further developed as well.

Both the EU and French regulatory framework offer an opportunity to incentivize the development of reuse, which is particularly relevant at the local level. While Citeo is convinced of the environmental, economic and social benefits of reuse, we must not lose sight of the fact that reuse solutions make sense at the local level, considering that the transportation of reusable packaging on long distance is detrimental to reuse from an environmental point of view.

At the regional level, associations and companies offer local solutions

The Farm to Fark Strategy provides for a legislative initiative on reuse in food services, aiming to substitute single-use food packaging and cutlery by reusable products. This proposal, planned for 2021 under the sustainable products initiative announced in the new Circular Economy Action Plan, already has an equivalent at the French level. We maintain that the EU could also promote new solutions by using its funding programmes, and by supporting the Member States to distribute “green vouchers” in order to accelerate the transition to sustainable food systems, including the development of reuse.

Promoting the uptake of recycled, renewable and innovative materials that achieve genuine environmental benefits and avoid burden shifts is also a solution. In this regard, the Commission plans to revise the food contact materials legislation. For the food packaging industry, it is indeed crucial to remove the regulatory obstacles to the use recyclable and recycled materials, while ensuring that the highest levels of food safety are guaranteed.