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Researchers want to make sustainable choices and disposal of food packaging easier

Consumers are confused about how to dispose food packaging in a sustainable way. In a new project, researchers want to change this with science-based campaigns, providing the information needed to make the right choice.

Are you sometimes confused about how to dispose food packaging?

Then you are not alone.

The numerous types of packaging and various kinds of disposal systems does not make it straightforward to behave in a sustainable way.

Researchers now want to make it easier for consumers to make the right choice with science-based campaigns creating awareness and closing information gaps - and finally enabling the public to improve their disposal patterns at home and on the go.

- Consumers want to do the right thing and behave in a sustainable way, but they have to know what to do, and the information needed must be readily available. We therefore need to address the important issues that consumers are facing and reply to their questions with the relevant information presented in a targeted and simple manner, says Niki Alexi from the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University.

A challenge everywhere

The project InFormPack is funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT Food), as a cooperation between Aarhus University and a number of international partners - as this is an issue relevant across Europe.

- There are so many different packaging types, systems for garbage sorting, guidelines and so much variation even within the same country, and it gets even more confusing on a European scale. With this project, we want to find out what kind of challenges the Europeans face - and how we can address them with targeted information, says Niki Alexi.

The first six months, the project is limited to Greece and the UK, where the researchers are demonstrating that they can positively influence consumer behavior. This should lay the foundation for a three-year-long research project covering more countries.

- The grocery shopping systems in Greece and the UK differ greatly. The latter is similar to Denmark with supermarkets and plastic packaging being used for example for fruits and vegetables, while in Greece, farmers markets, where items are not pre-packed, are more common - and this means that the challenges may differ across Europe.

At this point, two months into the project, a questionnaire study has been completed with 250 consumers in each of the two countries, and it shows that packaging plays a role in the choice of fresh fruits and vegetables for 86% of the participants in the UK, whereas in Greece only 48% agrees.

- The consumers feel that fruit and vegetables are excessively packed. However, packaging can reduce food waste, as it can make food last longer in retail and at home. So what is best: packed or unpacked? It depends on a combination of the packaging elements, the food characteristics, the supply chain characteristics etc., says Niki Alexi.

Choice and disposal interconnected

The consumers were asked about the challenges they face in relation to both the choice and disposal of food packaging, because these are closely interconnected.

- For example, what is a more sustainable choice: a glass beer bottle or an aluminum can? The answer is that it greatly depends. On one hand, glass may require more resources to be recycled than aluminum. On the other hand, companies may reuse glass bottles after washing for several cycles, which is a process that requires fewer resources than recycling the material and remaking packaging. Therefore, it is not only the material that matters but also for example, how it is handled after disposal e.g. is it recycled or reused? - And this adds to the complexity, says Niki Alexi.

In both countries, people are generally confused about the disposal of food packaging and especially recycling: Is it worse, if I put unclean packaging in the recycling, or is it worse if I do not recycle it at all?

- This is a question frequently asked by the consumers in our study, but there are many more questions that need to be answered and information gaps to be addressed. Thus, with the help of university researchers, packaging companies, recycling stations and relevant authorities, we want to guide people through our campaigns by providing facts and science presented in an engaging format, says Niki Alexi.

Campaigns under development

An important aspect of the project is that the public engages with the information, which will improve the likelihood of the campaigns having a positive impact on behavior. To be able to reach people with their campaigns, along with identifying packaging related issues, the researchers also asked the public participating in the questionnaire about their information-seeking behavior, for example, what kind of media the consumers use, who they trust to deliver information, and how they want information presented.

On this background, different campaigns are currently being created, in two different formats of communication: video and infographics. These campaigns address three prominent packaging themes which emerged from the consumer questionnaires: i) fresh fruit and vegetable packaging, ii) food packaging icons & recycling, and iii) cleaning of packaging and recycling.

- We will test the impact of the campaigns through questionnaires, where we will for example ask consumers, if they learned something new and if they will change their behavior following the campaign. However, we also want to test the campaigns in the more realistic setting of social media. We will share information to find out, if people engage with the material, for example by sharing and commenting, says Niki Alexi.  

Additional information
We strive to ensure that all our articles live up to the Danish universities' principles for good research communication (scroll down to find the English version on the web-site). Because of this the article will be supplemented with the following information:
Study typePublic engagement project including quantitative consumer and qualitative expert surveys as well as public campaign creation.
FundingThe project is funded by EIT Food.
Read more about EIT Food on this website 
Collaboration partners

Aarhus University
Reading University, UK
Maspex, Poland (food industry)
VTT, Finland (research institution)
Bioazul, Spain (engineering and technology consultancy)

The majority of activities in the proof-of-concept are run directly by Aarhus University. Reading University has been actively involved in providing feedback to the consumer and expert surveys, as well as contributing to the design of the campaigns and reviews of the various versions etc

Maspex is contributing with access to food packaging companies that will be used, among other sources, as an expert source for information regarding food packaging

All partners participate in the steering committee of the project, approving the contents of questionnaires and will participate actively in the dissemination of the project to the local networks and consumers audiences (by deploying campaigns locally etc.) 

ContactFor further information, please contact Niki Alexi, Postdoc at the Department of Food Science, niki.alexi@food.au.dk, phone: +45 61672986