Wrap It Up: Making Food Packaging More Sustainable (Guest Post)

Guest Post!: About the Author

Lena Milton is a freelance writer covering sustainability, health and environmental science. She writes to help consumers understand the environmental and ethical challenges in everyday life so we can find viable solutions for both.

If you’re reading this, you probably recycle the plastic packaging used to contain everything from cookies to sandwiches. Maybe you even buy from brands advertising packaging made from recycled materials. Or maybe your favourite restaurant provides compostable takeout containers. Like many shoppers these days, I spend time thinking about the most environmentally-friendly packaging options. But with so many options out there, it can be hard to know if you’re actually making a difference.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

As more and more brands begin to take sustainability more seriously, packaging is often one of the first initiatives a company will take to show its customers a commitment to lessening its environmental impacts. And customers are interested! A 2021 survey showed that nearly 70% of consumers polled were willing to pay more for an item that is sustainably packaged. 

While sustainable packaging of any kind is a step in the right direction, when it comes down to it, many recycled packaging concepts sound greener than they actually are. Come along as we investigate the best solutions to our plastic packaging crisis. After reviewing the problems with plastic packaging, we’ll examine some of the sustainable packaging options available. Finally, we’ll explore the systemic changes that may be just the solution we’re looking for.

The Plastic Problem

Around 14.5 million tonnes of plastic containers were produced in the U.S. in 2018, and over 359 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. These numbers have only increased since then.

Plastic packaging is nearly everywhere you turn in the grocery store. Whether it’s hard plastic bottles or soft plastic wraps and bags, it’s quite difficult to shop without buying at least one item covered in plastic.

In fact, around 14.5 million tonnes of plastic containers were produced in the U.S. in 2018, and over 359 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. These numbers have only increased since then. Despite the large amount of plastic containers produced, very little of it is recycled, and much of it ends up in landfills or, eventually, in the ocean or other fragile ecosystems. Additionally, many plastics contain impurities, heavy metals, or other toxic chemicals that leach out over time into the environment. While some companies test their food packaging and containers, most plastics still end up with some dangerous chemicals.

Not only does all this plastic create huge amounts of waste (looking at you, Great Pacific Garbage Patch!), but it also creates large levels of carbon emissions because plastic is made from fossil fuels. In fact, around 4-8% of the world’s annual oil consumption comes from plastics. Reducing the environmental impacts of packaging is a matter of taking every stage of the packaging’s lifecycle into account.

So, What Solutions Exist?

While all the facts above sound bad (and yeah, they are), many companies have taken steps to try and address the problems associated with plastic packaging. This does represent an important shift in business values towards sustainability, which should be celebrated. 

Unfortunately though, some of these sustainable packaging practices are less effective than we’d like and may contribute to a company being able to say they’re sustainable without truly lessening their impacts.

Recyclable Packaging

One of the most common misconceptions is that simply having recyclable packaging, such as plastics or cardboard, is environmentally friendly. While this is likely better than packaging that must be thrown out, the reality is that most packaging, including kinds that can be recycled, don’t actually end up being recycled. 

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

In fact, according to the Product Stewardship Institute, only 9% of plastic products are recycled in the U.S., one of the worst culprits. And some plastic products labelled as recyclable can’t be processed by your local recycling program. Additionally, we’re not all recycling masters, and sometimes may put the wrong items in recycling bins, which contaminates the entire recycling process. 

So – recyclable packaging is better than products that can’t be recycled at all, but only if we actually recycle it. That said, many areas in Europe and Canada have implemented “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) programs that put the burden on companies, rather than consumers, to help increase recycling and material recovery rates. EPR programs have successfully reduced contamination and increased recovery.

Recycled Packaging

What of recyclable packaging’s close cousin, packaging made from recycled materials? First, it should be noted that packaging made from recycled materials relies on us actually recycling material in the first place, which, as we noted above, is easier said than done.

Second, while creating packaging made from recycled materials does reduce the need for new raw materials (plastic) to be created, the production process is still somewhat similar to that of conventional plastic packaging. This solution is positive because it helps reduce plastic waste and the need for raw materials, but it doesn’t take the full lifecycle of the packaging into account.

Compostable Packaging

Compostable packaging must be processed in a specific way, which can sometimes be challenging for smaller facilities.

Compostable packaging presents some of the same issues as recyclable packaging, as much of it does not end up getting composted. Additionally, compostable packaging must be processed in a specific way, which can sometimes be challenging for smaller facilities such as a town’s composting facility. Some compostable containers aren’t even accepted by composting facilities because of how long they take to break down.

Additionally, watch out for companies claiming their packaging is biodegradable – this is not the same as compostable! In fact, biodegradable packaging may produce toxins as it degrades, and there is no fixed timeframe for how long it takes to break down.

There is good news on the horizon for compostable packaging, though. A new packaging material called PHA is being used to develop compostable containers that degrade much more easily – so easily, in fact, that you can break it down in your own backyard compost without an industrial composting facility.

The Best Solution: Reduce and Reuse

The best solution is to simply reduce the amount of packaging we use as a whole. We’ve all been there; you open the plastic outer coating only to find more plastic packaging on the inside! Reducing the amount of plastic packaging we use not only reduces the amount of raw materials used, but it also reduces the environmental costs of producing new products and reduces packaging waste.

Now you’re probably wondering how we can reduce plastic packaging. After all, some products need packaging. That’s where reuse comes in.

Photo from Pixabay.

One of the most effective solutions to the problem of plastic packaging is to use reusable, refillable containers instead. As of 2019, less than 2% of plastic packaging was reusable. However, this solution is extremely promising, because it would drastically reduce the amount of plastic we produce and throw out. 

So, what does this entail? Reusable packaging is packaging or containers made from glass, metal, or even ceramic that can be refilled. This can take many forms. One option that is already being implemented by several companies are programs where customers buy products online, are sent products in reusable packaging, and then send that container back to the company to be reused. For example, Loop is an online marketplace that sends you products in reusable packaging that you then return. While this is likely still better than plastic, the environmental burden of transportation may start to outweigh the positive benefits of the reusable container.

One of the main hurdles to implementing reusable packaging, other than the actual creation of these programs, is simply customer buy-in. After all, buying something wrapped in plastic and simply throwing it out is easy. One option to ensure people actually return the reusable containers is to include a refundable cost into the cost of the product. For example, when you buy a food item in a metal container, you pay an extra fee that you get back when you turn in the container.

The best solution is to simply reduce the amount of packaging we use as a whole.

In order to achieve more widespread reuse of products, we need a system-wide overhaul of how we do our shopping. For this reason, many have posited that the best solution to sustainable packaging is grocery stores that allow customers to fill up their own reusable containers. This would likely also reduce branded packaging, which would help reduce the amount of greenwashing we see in grocery stores.

As with any solution, it’s important to implement reusable packaging thoughtfully. First, it should be noted that items must be reused a certain number of times before it’s actually more environmentally friendly than a disposable product. For example, glass can have a positive environmental impact compared to paper with only six uses.

Where Does This Leave Us?

According to a 2020 McKinsey report, out of all companies that support sustainable packaging, 60% focus on recycling packaging or on recycled content in their packaging, 26% focus on reducing packaging use, and a mere 14% focus on promoting systemic change.

First, some zero-waste grocery stores already exist! Try searching for a zero-waste store near you. Even if the full store isn’t zero waste, many natural foods stores with bulk sections allow you to bring your own container. You can also consider reducing your own plastic use at conventional grocery stores by bringing your own bags for produce.

Photo from Pixabay.

If we want to truly address the problem of packaging, we need to shift more companies over to promoting systemic change. This may sound daunting, but here’s some good news: customers are increasingly pushing for this, and so are governments. Additionally, we know what needs to happen – now, it’s just a matter of making it happen!

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