The Protective Role of Plastics in Packaging

A critical part of the conversation is missing -- packaging and the food supply chain. How we source, transport and store food plays a crucial role in limiting the environmental impact of diets.

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Global warming poses a unique peril to the world. The good news? We're more aware of it, with 60% of the U.S. population recognizing it as a significant existential threat. We've seen major lifestyle changes take place in the United States and across the globe. Sales of electric and hybrid vehicles are up; more U.S. households are using solar power. The way people eat and buy their food has transformed in recognition of the environmental impact of livestock rearing.

But, a critical part of the conversation is missing -- packaging and the food supply chain. How we source, transport and store food plays a crucial role in limiting the environmental impact of diets.

Plastics in packaging

Packaging plays an essential role in keeping food fresh, but it is often seen as wasteful and dangerous to the environment. Packaging is perceived as something to be reduced and eventually eliminated, rather than something that adds to a product's ecological credentials, like retaining quality, flavor, improving shelf life or reducing food waste.

There is an undeniable environmental cost to producing the packaging food that stretches from production and shipping to how it's ultimately disposed of. Single-use plastics, for example, are often dumped in a landfill or end up in the ocean. When it comes to plastic alternatives, however, there is a lot of misinformation out there.

The reality is that most "biodegradable" plastic gets treated like garbage and sent to the landfill.

Functional, yet unpopular

Product packaging has experienced a crisis of image. It is, to put it mildly, deeply unpopular.

Perceived as wasteful at best, harmful at worst, individuals and retailers alike are trying to minimize (or even eliminate) its use. According to one 2020 survey of U.S. and European consumers, 68% associate plastic packaging with ocean contamination, with a further 74% saying they'd pay more for "sustainable packaging."

And yet, one crucial thing is overlooked -- when it comes to fruits and vegetables, product packaging serves a purpose. If it didn't exist, the amount of food wasted each year would be even higher. On a basic level, the packaging is used for protection. It limits how much produce can move, helping prevent bruising and damage that could render it inedible. It serves as a barrier against moisture, which can introduce harmful pathogens and result in leafy vegetables wilting on the shelves. 

This is in addition to its other roles, allowing retailers to stack produce on shelves while affording branding opportunities easily.

Getting packaging right

Food packaging is essential. But, the choice of materials also plays a vital role, particularly when it comes to managing the environmental impact of our food consumption.

While it may be tempting to buy food wrapped in trendy "compostable" bioplastics, the unfortunate truth is these are arguably less recyclable than ordinary oil-derived plastics. You can't just shove them in your garden's compost bin and wait for them to break down; you need a sophisticated industrial composting machine, which few municipalities do. Even if it could break down over time in your backyard, the composting process produces known greenhouse gases -- methane and carbon dioxide.

For consumers looking to make the greenest decision, the solution is to go against their instincts, avoid the gimmicks and opt for tried-and-tested plastics. Among the most commonly used in food packaging is Polyethylene Terephthalate, also known as PET or Plastic No. 1.

Non-toxic, incredibly hardy and water-resistant, PET is well-suited for food packaging. And, thanks to its ubiquitous use across food and household products, it's easily recyclable, with most municipalities equipped with the necessary equipment to process it.

Still, it's up to individuals to make an effort to ensure packaging goes in the recycling bin after use, rather than the general waste. Food producers also bear a heavy responsibility to ensure their packaging design is conservative enough to limit the number of materials needed while ensuring it fulfills its fundamental protective role.