Food packaging and sustainability – Consumer perception vs. correlated scientific facts: A review

Sarah Otto, Mara Strenger, Andrea Maier-Nöth, Markus Schmid (2021). “Food packaging and sustainability – Consumer perception vs. correlated scientific facts: A review.” Journal of Cleaner Production 298, 126733.

Abstract: Food packaging maintains the food safety and ensures the quality of food throughout the supply chain. Both are achieved by the protective function of the packaging against negative ambient influences such as mechanical damage, light or water vapour. Material, form and concepts of packaging vary widely, which thus also differentiates the environmental impact for packaging. This paper provides an overview of the current research of European consumer perception and how this correlates with the environmental impact of loose foodstuffs and packaged food. Considered materials are plastic, glass, metal, and paper/cardboard. These perceptions are compared to the objective environmentally friendliness based on the selected assessment criteria carbon footprint, recycling rate, reuse rate and biological degradation/decomposition in Europe. The purpose of this paper is to discover whether there is any link between the consumer perception and the scientific assessed environmental sustainability. Consumers judge packaging material by criteria of circular economy, natural looking material, and design. The environmental impact of paper/cardboard and metal are rated in line with the scientific measure by consumers, whereas plastic packaging is underestimated and glass and biodegradable plastic packaging are highly overestimated. These results indicate that the rating of European consumers and scientific life cycle assessments turn out differently. The differences are mainly linked by theoretical concepts of recyclability, biodegradability, and reuse rate of the packaging. Consumers evaluate food packaging by affective feelings than using cognitive reasoning. Their knowledge about the practical implementation of recyclability, biodegradability and reusability as well as additional environmental impact factors are low. Consequently, consumers’ buying behaviour is in most cases less environmentally sustainable than intended. Awareness trainings based on scientific facts, clear product and packaging information based on labelling schemes (“eco-labelling”) and nudging for sustainable behaviour can potentially support consumers in their sustainable buying behaviour.

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