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.


Why is this column always so hostile to the encouragement of healthy and less wasteful habits, such as eating as much fresh, local, and unprocessed food as possible? And yes, possibly eating a bruised apple every now and then. Have we really given up on Americans' ability to live responsibly?

I appreciate the suggestion that people should shop smarter, but surely learning how to make meal plans and cook whole foods--and fostering municipal composting programs--are the best solutions to the problem of food waste, from every point of view except that of food processors and packaging manufacturers.

I'm a young mother on a budget, so please don't tell me eating fresh foods is too expensive for most people. You prioritize and you don't get to eat meat every day. I buy rice and beans in bulk. Some people truly don't have the time and money to do this, sure, but most of us could cut out some television and Forever 21 to make it happen.



Hey Senalishia, ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?


Food packaging is a straw man issue. When compared to the packaging of non-consumable goods such as toys or electronics, food packaging is minimal.

Adam Hammond

The carbon in food is part of a cycle that does not cause net increases in atmospheric carbon. The processes of cultivating, transporting, and packaging food DO add to the problem (because they use fossil fuel).

Your point about carbon released from disposed food makes you sound silly. That carbon would also be released if we ate the food. Furthermore, that carbon was pulled from the atmosphere just recently to make the food in the first place.

Waste, both food and packaging, is a waste of all the fossil fuel required to get it to the consumer - and then to haul it to a landfill. Reducing this waste is a worthy goal. Whether it is reducing the wasted food or the wasted packaging makes very little difference in climate terms.

Ocean health, as a commenter mentioned, is a separate worthy topic.

Methane from landfills is also a valid point, but more complex than stated. If we ate the food there would also be methane produced - depending on the type of waste treatment facilities are at the other end of our plumbing.



Amazing how many of life's tasks need to be retaught to Americans -- how to shop, how to cook, how to eat. At our home food waste is egg shells, rinds, peels, coffee grounds and bones. All but the bones go in the compost or are used to fertilize. Coffee grounds, for example, makes great fertilizer. The rest of our non-recyclable weekly garbage fills one small bag. Glass, paper, tins go in recycle bin. This is doable, and takes essentially no extra time. And we live in a city.


You've got it backwards.

Packaging of produce increases food waste, which is why it exists in the first place. The goal of the packaging is to sell more. Packaging takes away the ability to buy only what you need, and forces you to buy in larger quantities. It also prevents you from selecting undamaged produce -- forcing you to take the crushed grapes and bruised apples at the bottom of the package. It's thrown out either way, the difference is with packaging you pay for it first.

I'm surprised you failed to examine the incentives in packaging produce. Making food last longer is the equivalent of selling less. None of this has anything to do with environmental impact -- it's about selling previously unsalable food.


Sounds like common sense to me.

I would like to see emphasis on more local food production and local distribution, rather than transporting it all over the place, sometimes all the way around the world. Food should be consumed as soon as possible after harvesting. Even if it looks OK, some nutrients are lost when it is kept too long.

I've seen trucks loaded with apples going opposite direstions on Interstate 80: New York apples headed for the Northwest and Washington apples headed for the Northeast! Such inefficiencies of distribution do not make sense.

Timothy Baxter, Atlanta

Many of these points were made over thirteen years ago in a NYT Magazine article by John Tierney, "Recycling is Garbage."

New York Times, 30 June, 1996.

"Plastic packaging and fast-food containers may seem wasteful, but they actually save resources and reduce trash. The typical household in Mexico City buys fewer packaged goods than an American household, but it produces one third more garbage, chiefly because Mexicans buy fresh foods in bulk and throw away large portions that are unused, spoiled or stale."

Sharon Huestis

I was thrilled when the City of Seattle began requiring food waste separation last year. There's no excuse for putting leftover food in the landfill, when it can be composted and used for fertilizer. This not only saves landfill space, but it reduces the amount of natural gas needed to produce fertilizer. After putting compostables in the food waste bin, and recyclables in the recycling bin, my boyfriend and I rarely have even 1/4 of our 13 gallon kitchen garbage can full after a week.


to "there are alternatives"
what? my kids can not eat healthy because my husband and I both work?

Somehow they seem to be eating tons of fresh berries, fruit, carrots, milk, whole wheat breads, etc. Gosh - I somehow even make pot roast with celery, potatoes, and carrots. We compost in the back yard. We buy bulk oatmeal and spices from a local health store.

AND YES - we even enjoy all the yummy processed foods!! Like donuts on saturday mornings!! Some sugar cereals are super delicious also!!

What does a work schedule have to do with packaging?


If plastic packaging is made from oil, why are we wasting valuable potential energy by throwing it in a landfill? We should be collecting it and burning it to make electricity. Sure it will create carbon dioxide, but so does coal which is used to generate over 55% of our nation's electricity. If we start burning packaging waste, maybe we can slow the rate of increase of the use of coal, and save some landfill space in the process.


Why do you only examine the costs of packaging when it sits in the landfill? A more thorough study would also take into account the costs of extracting the raw materials needed to make the packaging (and the pollution that creates) and then the costs of production of making the final product (and the pollution that makes), which in this case is trash...


A number of comments

1) Packaging usage has to be examined in relationship to the amount of food delivered as food not as waste. In other words if we lose 50% of produce because it has spoiled than that means that all the energy, pesticides, fertilizer etc should be apportioned to that consumed and the true energy cost of these is much higher. The addition of packaging, therefore, may result in less net energy per food consumed if the waste is reduced. (This has the additional benefit of feeding more people)
2) Shelf life extension has similar impact. For example, many salads, and cut lettuce, are bagged in modified atmosphere. This allows salads to achieve a 15 day shelf life rather than less than half of that. This allows less expensive systems for shipping, providing healthy food to more people and less waste. All good trade offs.
3) Biodegradability is nothing but a buzz word. Plastic waste is mostly landfilled or recycled. In a land fill, biodegradability is not desired because of leachate to ground water which is why land fills mummify waste.
4) Compost is another non sequitur. Frankly we don't want to ship produce or packages across the country to New York City so they become soil amendments.
5) Plastics come from gas or oil but this doesn't mean they are more wasteful of gas or oil. Glass for example is formed by melting the ingredients in a furnace kept at 2000F. That furnace is heated with gas and oil which means more energy consumption throughout the life cycle than comparable plastics. Likely the little juice boxes everyone complain about are a far more efficient packaging system than their glass or plastic counterparts. Less mass means less energy in manufacture and less weigh means less energy in shipping.


Baffled Observer

When food is sold in wrapped packages, more may be bought, but that doesn't mean it is consumed. It may mean that the buyer gets stuck with one or more items they wouldn't have bought if they'd been able to touch it, smell it, and turn it over. That certainly has happened to me before.

Living Large

Implicit in this argument is that the consumer culture in which we live is an economic bubble factory. For example, if half of the food Americans buy is thrown away, that probably means that a decent portion of the jobs and other economic benefits associated with that food (including its distribution and sale), is unnecessary. As unnecessary as having 10 phones, 9 televisions, 8 rooms, 7 electric clocks, 6 bath towels per person, 5 bathrooms for a family of four, 4 coffee makers, 3 cars, 2 phone lines, and one watchamacallit. Although everyone really needs a watchamacallit. When that bubble bursts, we're done.


Packaging is fine, just make it size-efficient, biodegradable and non-petro, that is, no harmful chemicals leaching into us and the rest of the world for decades after a single use. As oil and gas become more expensive, this will occur and we will be the better for it. You think BPA is the only compound leaching into food from plastic? Even if plastic waste is incinerated, it still goes into the biosphere.

Here's an idea: let's return to glass, ceramic, metal, and wax paper, only improve upon them. Bring back bottle and can deposits.

In the meantime, work to make all consumer goods and packaging recyclable and yes, minimize your kitchen waste and food miles.

Abby Tucson, AZ

I'm more concerned about what the wrapper says than it's usefulness otherwise. Ever since that horror of learning that meat processors boiled floor scraps are then centrifuged and the "protein material" concentrated is run through a tube and injected with ammonia gas to be added to ground meat at levels of 15%, I can't find evidence of it in any of those prepackaged patty bags. I know it's there, but what's the beef?

A friend of my husband's has been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob. A fifty year old woman. I don't think she'd care about packaging, either. Unless they use thermal depolymerization to obliterate the protien molecules of the waste "meat," as is done in the industry to render 'crude oil" from scraps, those prions are getting through. If the E. Coli is still getting past this new fangled way of stretching a buck. We're worring about a future than may end much too soon.

I guess the folks at the rendering plant got tired of having to find places to despose of that centrifugal waste. "Let's call it beef product and hide it behind our poor labling requirements."



Why people waste so much food is beyond me. I think one reason people eat too much is because they have too much, and feel guilty if they don't eat everything in front of them, including what's calling out to them from the (oversized?) pantry. Perhaps if it wasn't for lack of budgeting or the huge carrying capacity of so many vehicles it would be easier to alleviate waste. Perhaps if people only bought as much food as they could carry, we wouldn't need so much packaging. There are infinite simple ways to store food at home if need be that only require a little, only a little, forethought and monetary outlay. Nothin' wrong with leftovers for lunch, folks!
I live in a city. My total trash for a month barely fills a standard plastic grocery-store-type plastic bag. Not hard to do because I only buy what I need, and I buy as little packaging as possible-almost none.
One of the problems we may encounter in the future if we reduce packaging is a loss of jobs that won't come back...



While the comments about buying locally and composting food waste are great suggestions, the reality is that they aren't practiced by most Americans and won't be any time soon (and aren't even an option for many). As a general rule, most lifestyle decisions made by NYTimes readers are probably not representative of the general public (like voting or keeping up with current events). So when the author cites statistics, he's not referring to you or your neighbors in particular, but a cross section of our society. It seems to be a logical point that packaging perishable goods could cause the average consumer to discard less food as trash.


So the chicken most definitely came before the egg?

You seem to have missed the obvious other side to this issue - that packaging helps increase the range of food and is complicit in globalizing the food industry.

You have approached this article from the narrow perspective that packaging only increases shelf life. It also increases the distance food can travel (one of those hidden factors of "shelf life"), which is creating an enormous problem in itself.

Instead of sourcing more local food, you seem to praise creating more solid waste (packaging) in order to allow us to burn more fossil fuels transporting food around. A classic example of creating multiple problems where before there were none.

You also make the claim that food waste produces methane. That is only true in a landfill. Composting food waste - another benefit of a more local food system - and an aerobic process (not an anaerobic process that would produce methane), returns the nutrients to the soil. It is true plastics sitting in landfills don't produce methane, but that is not exactly a benefit. That just means that they are not biodegradable. Their manufacture produces all sorts of other pollutants and emissions. This is not even mentioning BPA, pthalates or any of the other "problems" associated with food packaging.

Finally, "we waste more energy by not scraping the bottom of the barrel than we do by throwing out the barrel when we're done" - this is beyond speculation.

Do you write about any other topics, or are your articles just puff pieces for agro-business conglomerates with anti-environmental themes?