How About Them (Wrapped) Apples?

Food PackagingPhoto: WordRidden

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.

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  1. Clayton says:

    This is the reason I come to this website, to make me think about problems in ways I hadn’t even considered. I’ll keep this in mind next time I’m cleaning out my refrigerator or shopping for groceries.

    Also, perhaps the most environmentally sound thing to do is to buy small amounts of food with little to no packaging and using reusable tupper-ware containers (unless of course cleaning them out negates the savings).

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  2. Jim Purdy says:

    Bananas!

    You can eat all of the banana fruit, and then the packaging (the peel) is biodegradable.

    How about genetically engineering bananas to produce pork and chicken inside?

    Porkanas and banickens.

    The 50 Best Health Blogs

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  3. John says:

    But the plastic never goes away. And not all of it goes to landfills. The oceans are filling up with it. Never to be cleaned up.

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  4. Michael says:

    Jim, Dilbert already did this with the Tomeato and I think it caused the economic collapse of a small nation.

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  5. Anne-Marie says:

    Very thought-provoking, had not considered the factor of produce waste in relation to this issue.

    The packaging trend that I find to be extremely irksome is the new trend in “100 calorie packs.” Food companies are completely capitalizing on our country’s national diet obsession, and are producing a great deal of extra packaging simply to be able to charge customers more for the service of portion control. Customers are complicit as well for needing that service, I suppose; for either not recognizing or not caring that they could save money (and get a tastier, less stripped-down product) by simply buying the normal boxes of things and measuring their own portions at home.

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  6. Anne from France says:

    “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.”

    Doesn’t look like the packing is helping then, is it?

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  7. Ian Kemmish says:

    Most important of all is education, I think.

    Here in the UK, many councils now do separate collection of food waste, which is sent either for bio-electricity generation or for composting. This lets me inspect my neighbour’s habits.

    Where I put out pistachio shells, eggshells, tea bags and week-old fruit, many of my neighbours (especially those with children) stuff their food bins with half-eaten burgers and curries. In their case, neither the packing nor the food is essential.

    We’ve had people on TV urging people not to buy more food than they need, but that’s another conservation message that’s falling on deaf ears, I’m afraid.

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  8. Senalishia says:

    Plastic doesn’t NEVER go away. Stop being so melodramatic. It degrades eventually, and microbes are being developed that make it do so faster. And while it is unsightly and hazardous to wildlife, we’re not in danger of being knee-deep in it any time soon. We just need to be honest about which problems we’re really facing and not appeal to immediate emotional reactions.

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