Since I began researching this topic for my PhD one of the things I get asked most often is ‘But how can you support packaging use? You’re supposed to be an environmentalist!’ There’s no short answer to this, trust me; I wrote 80,000 words on it for my thesis, which is why it’s a topic we’ll come back to time and time again. But I’ll give you an overview of the issue now.
Food and packaging have a completely unique relationship – Believe me, I get as annoyed as everyone else when I order a softback book from Amazon and it comes wrapped in 15 layers of plastic and cardboard. But food packaging plays an amazingly large part in minimising food waste, the impact of which we don’t see a lot of because it occurs before us in the supply chain. The most popular example is the cucumber. How many times have people said “It doesn’t need packaging, it comes with a natural skin”. That might be true and would have been all we needed in the old days when there were stay at home wives who shopped daily from their supermarket, which buys seasonal veg from local farmers. But now we demand year round access to the food we like which means the cucumber sitting in my fridge right now has probably travelled further in the last week then I have in the last year!
If that cucumber were to travel all that way to get to you without its packaging, odds are we’d lose a large quantity in transit and the ones which did survive and made it to our fridges would have about a one day shelf life before they rotted. Believe it or not, that thin little piece of packaging extends the cucumbers life span by long enough to reduce massive amounts of waste. Now, if you want to shop locally and daily and use the entire cucumber in the first two days then, granted, the packaging’s not AS helpful but the reason supermarkets put it on in the first place is because they realise our lifestyles have changed. There are fewer stay at home spouses to shop daily, more single-person households which aren’t going to go through a whole cucumber in a day, and so on. In all these circumstances packaging prevents food waste. And that brings up another key point: packaging reduces masses of food waste in the home without us even realising. There's been a recent call to return to the days of glass milk bottles which in the recyclability sense is great. But for us accident-prone types glass bottles which don't have screw-on lids can only spell disaster - and food waste. There are dozens more ways in which packaging contributes to reducing waste in the home and when foods on its way to you, but I'll save those for another post.Now, on to the main event. Why should we prioritise food waste reduction over packaging waste reduction? There are two main points you need to know here:
1. Food waste has a large number of impacts on the environment and, in the vast majority of cases, is worse for the environment than packaging waste
2. The technology to recycle all packaging currently exists, the recycling industry doesn’t receive enough funding to make it wide stream enough to handle all the packaging waste in the UK (Post on this to come!). Now plastic, unlike glass and cans, isn't 'infinitely' recyclable, so this isn't an answer to all plastics and doesn't justify massive use of single-use plastics for inane purposes (such as wrapping paperback books!). But it does mean that in the cases where plastic is necessary and prevents further social or environmental harm, such as in healthcare (social) and food packaging (environmental), we can recycle what we need to use, provided we're given the resources to do so. To boil this down to a basic point, it means our plastic doesn't need to end up in the ocean because we're shipping plastic off to China. We just need to invest in our recycling infrastructure.
If you’ve read my introductory article (‘Why should we care about food waste?’) then you’ll already have an idea of the environmental impacts food carries. But what does that mean in terms of packaging?
There’s a large variety of environmental impacts we can assess when we look at food and packaging but the most popular are Energy use, Eutrophication and Global Warming Potential (GWP). GWP is also known as Greenhouse Gas emissions or CO2 equivalent. So let’s look at the relationship between food and packaging using these measures.
In research examining the typical diet of a single person over the space of a week, it has been found that the creation of packaging uses lower levels of energy consumption than the home storage or cooking stages. Further than this, its energy consumption is FIVE TIMES lower than that of farming the food products.
Similarly, additional research exploring bread and its packaging found that the production of the bread consumes 15.8MJ of energy, compared to the packaging which requires 1.4MJ of energy. Subsequently, reducing or removing the packaging may save 1.4MJ of energy, but would also most likely lead to the accelerated spoiling of the bread and wasting a portion of the 15.8MJ of energy used to make it. Based on these calculations the author found that throwing away a single slice of bread was wasting more energy than using the packaging to protect it (2).
Now, Global Warming Potential. It’s important when we use this term that we try to consider things from a lifecycle perspective – where we consider the environmental impact every stage of the product and packaging, also know as ‘Cradle to Grave’ analysis. By looking at it like this we make sure that we’re not just looking at the stages where the product does the least harm so we can pat ourselves on the back and say ‘What a good job we’re doing with our environmental initiatives!’.
So in research which has applied this lifecycle perspective, it has been shown that the global warming potential of certain foods, in particular, beef and cheese, is much higher than the GWP of the packaging (3). This is in part because of the high greenhouse gas emissions caused by cow farming and partly because of the higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions from rotting meat than vegetables (4). Because of this, if a new packaging format is developed which reduces food waste by as little as 5% it will lower the GWP of the product and packaging combination, even if it raises the isolated GWP of the packaging by as much as THIRTEEN TIMES! The table below has the details on the product types and the potential increase in packaging’s impact.
Global warming impact of bread, beef and cheese measured in CO2 equivalent per kilogram of food (Wikstrom & Williams, 2010, pp. 406)
Finally, one of the main reasons the zero waste movement has gained so much traction recently is the understanding of the impact mismanaged plastic waste is having on our oceans. But did you know that food waste can hurt them too? Another environmental impact to consider is Eutrophication - this is the where excess nutrients run off the land, into water where they change the balance of the water by feeding different algae’s and bacteria, alter the pH of the water and can cause a change in oxygen levels killing off fish and destroying ecosystems. Currently, our farmers are trying desperately to keep up with the demand for food we put on them, despite the fact we throw 1/3rd of the food away. This means trying to grow more crops and breed more meat quicker which requires (and in animal farming, causes) large amounts of fertilisers which are used even in organic farming, they're totally natural but still contain high levels of nutrients not usually found in that ground and nearby water. Both these excessive farming processes and food waste itself can contribute to Eutrophication (5). This can impact both local water, such as streams and lakes, and can also be carried down to the ocean where it can have similar impacts if continued. So by correctly utilising food packaging we can minimise the amount of food waste in our homes and ease the environmental burden caused by overproducing food.
So basically, packaging? Not so bad! In the context of food at the least…
1. INCPEN. (2009). Table for One.
2. Robertson, G. (2013). Food packaging: Principles and Practice. Boca Raton: Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.
3. Wikström, F., & Williams, H. (2010). Potential environmental gains from reducing food losses through development of new packaging–a life‐cycle model. Packaging Technology and Science, (August), 403–411. https://doi.org/10.1002/pts
4. Heller, M. C., & Keoleian, G. A. (2015). Greenhouse gas emission estimates of US dietary choices and food loss. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 19(3), 391-401.
5. Tonini, D., Albizzati, P. F., & Astrup, T. F. (2018). Environmental impacts of food waste: Learnings and challenges from a case study on UK. Waste Management, 76, 744-766.