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Simulating and reducing household waste from plastic food packaging

UK Research and Innovation fund new £800,000 project to tackle food and plastic packaging waste at home.

by Shamim Quadir

Plastic packaging waste is a major national and global issue. To help address the problem, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the national funding agency investing in science and research in the UK, has awarded £800,000 to a new project from City, University of London, the University of Sheffield, and the University of Greenwich.

Announced as part of the UKRI’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, the investment is part of the Enabling Research competition in the Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Challenge (SSPP) which aims to help tackle plastic waste in the UK with a wider £8 million investment in this area.

The UK generates one million tonnes of packaging waste per year, of which around 41% of plastic packaging is used for food. Whilst food packaging has seen over an 18-fold increase in the use of recycling since 2007, only one third of food packaging is currently recycled.

The new project will expand and enhance the existing ‘Household Simulation Model’ (HHSM) developed by academics from the food waste charity, ‘WRAP’.

The HHSM utilises ‘discrete event simulation’ (DES) which is a method of simulating the behaviour and performance of a real-life process, or system.

The model consists of four modules which help users understand key factors affecting household food waste production. These modules are shopping, storage, demand and consumption. Each module can be customised for household size and the behaviour of various, typical household decisions on shopping, storing and consuming numerous staple food items.

The updates to the model will focus on:

  • plastic packaging options and composition
  • household behavioural insights around packaging
  • plastic in the supply chain and environmental impacts

The aim is for the updated HHSM to quantify how plastic and food waste reduction may be achieved, and the environmental and monetary trade-offs from various solutions.

An optimisation engine, using meta-heuristic algorithms will also be developed and integrated with the updated HHSM to enhance the overall methodology and solutions.  Possible solutions may include offering consumers different pack sizes or changing packaging type/shape/reusability/durability.
The most successful solutions will be translated into consumer and industry guidance focusing on the top 30 foods linked to the highest waste and trade-off potential.

This guidance will be open access, and deployed through WRAP and global industry networks, and open access web tools.

It is hoped that this will enable rapid product and food system redesign both in the UK and beyond.

Dr Christian Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in Food Policy at City, University of London and who leads the project said:

"This is a great opportunity to support the UK to reduce plastic packaging and food waste. Our research work has already been used by UK companies to reduce food waste at home; this funding will allow us to upgrade our model to help UK companies understand how best to reduce plastic food packing, and where it can have the biggest environmental impacts."

Find out more

Visit the Centre for Food Policy, City University of London, webpage.

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