In the scramble to go green, today’s new packaging options may actually leave fresh produce underpackaged.

Ron Cotterman, vice president of sustainability at Sealed Air Corp., Duncan, S.C., told attendees at a Wal-Mart conference in Toronto on June 20 that making film thinner or shifting to a single, simpler material may actually increase product damage and food waste.

“You can only make packaging thinner and reduce the amount of material if you don’t affect its performance,” Cotterman said.

Best-before dates on fresh produce also may backfire, he said, as consumers discard food that’s still fresh and edible.

One problem is that there’s no single definition of a sustainable package.

In fact, the Global Protocol on Packaging Sustainability, which Cotterman contributed to, came up with 40 different descriptions.

“We all agreed that packaging can’t be looked at in isolation,” he said. “It’s got to be viewed in the context of how the package gets used across the supply chain and how it helps prevent the waste of other products. And it has to be brought back through a recovery system at the end of its life.”

The right package can enhance a product’s shelf life, he said, citing a Wal-Mart report that showed the shrink rate for bell peppers dropped significantly when packaged.

Cotterman’s work with groups studying inefficiency in the supply chain revealed that up to 40% of the world’s food produced is not consumed.

To feed the earth’s projected 9 billion people, the supply chain must become more efficient, he said, and packaging can play a role.

Much of the world’s food is wasted at home, studies show, rather than at the manufacturing or retail level.

A series of United Kingdom studies concluded two-thirds of food waste is avoidable if consumers would not buy too much, cook too much or leave products in the back of the fridge until they expire.

Cotterman said pre-portioned packages are one way to reduce waste. Sealed Air’s Simple Steps, for example, is an easy-open tray for steaming vegetables in the microwave. The tray even doubles as a plate.

When it comes to guacamole, which discolors quickly in air, the company recently released its Freshness Plus film, which actively “scavenges” or removes oxygen from the product.

Combining the film with technology — such as high-pressure pasteurization — doubles the shelf life of that guacamole, he said.

“It’s another example of how packaging can play a role in giving longer quality life and reducing the amount of food consumers waste.”