Consumers have a love-hate relationship with product packaging. On the plus side, it can help a product retain its quality and flavor, improve shelf life and build brand loyalty. Thoughtfully packaged products and food items are often pleasing to the eye and it’s easy to gravitate toward them.
On the flip side, however, packaging can also be seen as needlessly wasteful and harmful to the environment. For these reasons, many consumers (and businesses alike) are seeking ways to reduce packaging or find materials that are more ecologically friendly, writes Ryan Anderson, senior director of supply chain and logistics at Plenty.
There is, unfortunately, an environmental cost to producing the packaging that food goes into, and those costs can include everything from production of the materials themselves, production of packaging up the food product, shipping the product and ultimately how the product is disposed of. Single-use plastics, for example, are often dumped in a landfill or end up in the ocean. In fact, according to the NRDC, we collectively produce 300 million tons of plastic each year worldwide, half of which is for single-use items. That’s nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.
It may seem the easy answer is to just move away from plastics, but there are other things to consider. There is a lot of misinformation related to plastics alternatives and it's important to understand the nuances.
Biodegradable or "compostable" plastics, for example, aren't perfect even though they are often touted as a greener substitute. In many cases, breaking down these plastics requires industrial composting equipment, which many cities lack. Just because a bottle is labeled as using bioplastics, it doesn’t mean you can confidently toss it in your backyard compost pile and imagine it will readily break down. Even if that were possible, the decomposing process produces known greenhouse gases -- namely, methane and carbon dioxide.
Can’t we just recycle?
Unfortunately, the infrastructure for recycling is not as robust as we wish it were around the country. That said, great strides continue to be made to improve recycling. The truth is that while the packaging may be labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable,” it still breaks down in much the same way as plastic. In the absence of using an industrial composting process, it can take as much as 100 years to biodegrade even biodegradable plastics.
Even in cities well known for being environmentally conscious, such as Portland and San Francisco, recycling capabilities are not well understood. Most city composting programs specifically ban compostable packaging from their green recycling bins. Less than 200 cities around the country offer a curbside composting pick up program, but less than half of those accept compostable packaging (much of which has to be broken down at an industrial composting facility). All of these factors go into the decision-making for food packaging because without the ability to properly recycle it, even the most eco-friendly packaging can end up in the same spot as the rest of the non-recyclable garbage.
Focus on eliminating waste
Recycling aside, food packaging can play an essential role in reducing food waste and the environmental impact of what we put on our plates. Currently, anywhere from 30-40% of food in the US goes to waste - that translates to 133 billion pounds, or $161 billion every year. In almost every case, the biggest environmental impact is felt in the product phase, requiring significant amounts of carbon energy. Recycling, by contrast, represents only a tiny fraction of the energy required.
Companies looking to be more environmentally conscious of their food packaging would be wise to focus first on ensuring their product can withstand the rigors of shelf life and maintain fresh, peak flavor and nutrition. There are many ways to think about this. For example, avocados or tomatoes that are wrapped in a cardboard tray may seem as though they were placed there to make it more convenient for the customer. In reality, simply adding that small amount of packaging helps extend the shelf life beyond what would be possible if the produce is left loose and exposed to potential contaminants, bruising and other damage.
Eliminating food waste would actually do more to improve the environmental impact of produce than solely focusing on the recyclability of food packaging.
So, what's the way forward?
Make no mistake, there is a critical need to make smart, sustainable decisions around packaging design and materials in order to protect fresh food, extend its shelf life and reduce needless waste. Over time, we are seeing greater access to materials that allow farms, food producers and food suppliers to transport produce safely without sacrificing peak flavor, freshness, and nutrition.
Materials like paper and cardboard have been considered and are used in certain cases, though both have drawbacks. Paper, for example, allows produce to get wet, which can introduce pathogens and wilt the leaves. Cardboard does not readily withstand the rigors of cold distribution and it doesn't allow the shopper to see what's inside, a critical requirement when purchasing produce.
Striking a balance between finding the most environmentally-friendly packaging options while still maintaining product freshness, shelf life and appeal is not always easy, but it is attainable. The good news is that the technologies and processes - everything from recycling to product design - already exist to make proper packaging a possibility. For example, packaging that is made up of one material only is better for recycling, as is post-consumer recycled plastic.
A bigger battle to consider is how best to educate consumers and help them to know both the limits and opportunities associated with current recycling programs and eco-friendly packaging options, as well as the impact of the environment on production and how to address those concerns.
Packaging plays a vital role in protecting the supply chain and reducing food waste, and it should be an important consideration in the ecological cost of our diets. Before you judge produce by its plastic packaging, however, know that much consideration goes into packaging decisions and plastics can be part of an environmentally-friendly mission.
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