Food packaging seems like a straightforward problem with a straightforward solution: there’s too much of it; it piles up in landfills; we should reduce it. These opinions are standard among environmentalists, many of whom have undertaken impassioned campaigns to shroud consumer goods-including food-in less and less plastic, cardboard, and aluminum.
But the matter is a bit more complex than it might seem. Consider why we use packaging in the first place. In addition to protecting food from its microbial surroundings, packaging significantly prolongs shelf life, which in turn improves the chances of the food actually being eaten.
According to the Cucumber Growers’ Association, just 1.5 grams of plastic wrap extends a cuke’s shelf life from 3 to 14 days, all the while protecting it from “dirty hands.” Another study found that apples packed in a shrink wrapped tray cut down on fruit damage (and discard) by 27 percent. Similar numbers have been found for potatoes and grapes. Again, while it seems too simple a point to reiterate, it’s often forgotten: the longer food lasts the better chances there are of someone consuming it.
True, if we all produced our own food, sourced our diet locally, or tolerated bruised and rotting produce, prolonging shelf life wouldn’t matter much. But the reality is decidedly otherwise. The vast majority of food moves globally, sits in grocery stores for extended periods, and spends days, weeks, or even years in our pantries. Thus, if you accept the fact that packaging is an unavoidable reality of our globalized food system, you must also be prepared to draw a few basic distinctions. (If you don’t accept that fact, well, there’s probably no point in reading further.)
First, when it comes to food waste, not all materials are created equal. Concerned consumers look at wrapped produce and frown upon the packaging, because it’s the packaging that’s most likely destined for a landfill. But if you take the packaging away and focus on the naked food itself, you have to realize that the food will be rotting a lot sooner than if it weren’t packaged and, as a result, will be heading to the same place as the packaging: the landfill. Decaying food emits methane, a greenhouse gas that’s more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Packaging – unless it’s biodegradable – does not. If the landfill is connected to a methane digester, which in all likelihood it isn’t, you can turn the methane into energy. Otherwise, it makes more sense to send the wrapping (rather than the food) into the environmentally incorrect grave.
Second, when it comes to saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, our behavior in the kitchen far outweighs the environmental impact of whatever packaging happens to surround the product. Consumers toss out vastly more pounds of food than we do packaging-about six times as much. One study estimates that U.S. consumers throw out about half the food they buy. In Great Britain, the Waste and Resource Action Programme (funny enough, WRAP) claims that the energy saved from not wasting food at home would be the equivalent of removing “1 out of every 5 cars off the road.” The Independent reports that discarding food produces three times the carbon dioxide as discarding food packaging.
All of which is to say: if you’re truly eager to take on the waste inherent in our food systems, you’d be better off reforming your own habits at home-say, by buying more strategically, minimizing waste, and eating less-before taking on the institutional packaging practices of disembodied food distributers.
Finally, we could also have an impact by choosing foods that are packaged in a way that reduces waste at home. This point does not apply so much to produce, but a lot of goods are packaged to ensure that we use the entire product. They contain user-friendly features such as capacious openings (milk), transparent appearance (bagged salad), re-sealers (nuts), the ability to be turned upside down (ketchup), and smooth surfaces rather than grooved ones, where food can hide (yogurt). Seems bizarre, but it’s possible that we waste more energy by not scraping the bottom of the barrel than we do by throwing out the barrel when we’re done. Given the high cost of wasting food, the question of design might be more important than the question of necessity.
Waste is an inevitable outcome of production. As consumers, we should certainly see food packaging as a form of waste and seek increasingly responsible packaging solutions. At the same time, though, we must do so without resorting to pat calls to “reduce packaging.” Doing so, it seems, could do more harm than good.