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.


Clayton

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).

Jim Purdy

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.

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em

That's wickedly witty!

John

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.

Michael

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

Anne-Marie

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.

Anne from France

"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?

Ian Kemmish

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.

Senalishia

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.

Xian

Yes, packaging improves shelf life, and is worth it. Though, there is excessive waste of packaging material in many cases, the thickness of many packages are more than they need. For those that are packaging conscious, implant the idea in corperate America's idea of refilling more semi-perminate packaging, ie. sell refill bags of ketchup, mustard, salad dressing, et al. to reduce amount used.
Most packaging is recycleable, these impassioned populace should push to make more aware of available recycling programs and increase available recycling programs, push to help waste management companies to process all refuse before dumping that which cannot be recycled, my local dump takes concrete free of charge, then grinds it up and reuses it for barriers, septic tanks, etc., Here's another idea, their aformentioned group also complains that the natural habitat of areas are being destroyed and converted to tree farms, they should try and get the deforesting crews/groups to assist in clearing standard land development and use the trees from these parcels as a resource; since it is usually burned or chipped and tossed in a landfill. These groups irritate me for the only reason of being creative at putting the problem in our face but not providing a solution, and I guarantee, that every solution mentioned here will come with excuses of too much red tape, et al. If it really requires hard work I doubt they will really put in the effort.

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et

Regardless of what you think about packaging, if it (and the food it contains) is not made/grown in a truly sustainable way it is doomed to fail.

With regards to food, if it fails we go with it.

The question is when and where the fail will start. Your country or mine? My lifetime or my grandson's? Globally or locally? Gradually or with a bang?

Bill Beren

granted that there is a cost to growing and transporting food that will ultimately be wasted. That does not mean that throwing out a pound of compostable waste is equal to or worse than throwing out an ounce of plastic wrap. The plastic wrap is made from oil, used once and discarded. This is an incredible waste of a very scarce and increasingly expensive resource. Food waste can be composted, burned in an energy recovery plant, fed to pigs, or recycled in many different ways. It does not have to be buried in a landfill to form methane. Buying smartly, and using the food we buy is always a good idea, but does not mean that we need to have more packaging as a necessary evil.

cycle of life

Then, there is always that recycle thing.

Much like the water services (also available at some stores.) - or milk delivery of yore. One has the product delivered with the used containers picked up for cleaning and reuse. Or as a child I recall taking the gallon jug to the local A&W for fill-up!

Considering the stores that do not or discourage the use of "bagging" would their patrons be willing to bring back the apple packaging? How much aluminum, glass and plastics and incumbent costs are saved with deposits for the beverage containers and subsequent recycling?

Prior the the ability to place the zip/resealers on plastic bags, the purchaser needed to have an alternative (usually reusable) package. Consider even your flour still. Such is the birth of a large portion of "housewares."

gevin shaw

You make it sound as if we're throwing out half the food we bring into our homes. From the study you quote:

"...more than a quarter of all food produced for human consumption in America is currently discarded"

Not half. And that quarter includes food service losses. The single largest contribution to the 50 percent loss of kcal "between farm and fork" is the net loss to raise animals for meat and dairy, which I don't see how packaging helps. (Unless we consider the animals packaging?)

Still significant, but not what you indicated.

Tim

The cooking of the food must be taken into account too. Buying local sustainably grown potatoes is wise. Boiling the water to cook them with out a lid on the pot is not wise.

there are alternatives

real food doesn't have a lot of packaging.

the modern technological wonder of Processed Food has NOT liberated Mom & Dad from the traditional sex roles.

good health require real food cooked from scratch, which requires a homemaker.

impossible to eat healthy when both Mom & Dad are working full-time. impossible.

unless they're lucky enough to have Grandma or a maid cooking for them.

even after 40+ years of this failed experiment, with the results of a high starch, high sugar, fast food diet evident in our obesity, diabetes, ADHD, gut diseases, etc..

our national health is poor . . . packaging should not be our greatest concern.

Greg

The author didn't mention backyard composting. I realize that not everyone has a back yard, but in my city we have a separate collection truck for "green waste" which includes the fruits and vegetables that didn't get eaten.

The author seems to be implying that it would be better to buy prepackaged food in the supermarket than it would for me to shop at my farmer's market and compost my own waste. I'm not convinced.

Owen

Why do I have to have individually shrink wrapped socks inside a plastic bag with cardboard attached to it?

This column can often offer new perspectives and ideas but other times I feel like it is dismissive of valid points, often unconvincingly.

I was told once that it is dishonest to believe other arguments were made from a position less than the most favourable possible. For this reason, I would argue that suggesting that the call for 'less packaging' is invalid because it may make some produce last longer is dishonest. Now if I suggested my grapes, cucumbers, etc should have less packaging we can begin discussing the facts you claim.

Ben

James (may I?) is an acute writer and observer.
I enjoyed very much reading this article as his vision differs much from mine, his' being - apparently - defending the liberal free-market.

When he says that packages serve the purpose of making the product sold i think: yes but why should we buy a package instead of the fruit.
I am at the moment in Africa, where fruit is sold in the street, with every possible human being touching them (by which is always a good idea to wash them properly).

Of course there is less attention to how the product is presented and more attention to the taste. You can have wonderful mangos actually looking like rotted.

So what i say is: instead of going toward the taste of the the buyer, why not change their mentality?

Eric M. Jones

I say we should turn all our fossil fuels into carbon-bearing plastics that last forever.

This will stop global warming.

MaineGrammy

Potatos actually come pre-packaged in an attractive, biodegradable plain brown wrapper.

People who are not aware that it is possible to wash a potato and carve away little imperfections (not to mention the potato skin itself, if desired) might prefer to buy potatos that have additional packaging in the form of shrink-wrap.

But are such individuals intelligent enough to avoid eating the shrink-wrap?