A Professor Plastic Feature ArticleSee Other Articles
The Food Network’s New York City Wine & Food Festival showcases the latest food trends, offers tastings of fabulous wines from around the globe, and features cooking demonstrations from some of the world’s best-known chefs. And just whom did the festival organizers turn to as the official Recycling and Sustainability Partner for the 2013 festival? Plastics Make it Possible®.
“Recycling Partner” probably makes sense to most people, now that recycling of a lot of plastic food and beverage packaging is widespread and commonplace.
But what does “Sustainability Partner” mean? Is that a tacit acknowledgment that plastics are… environmentally sustainable? Don’t many people associate plastic packaging with waste?
Plastic Packaging and Sustainability
Let’s take a look at that connection between plastic food packaging and sustainability. Many people assume that packaging must be recyclable to be “sustainable.” Recycling certainly does help reduce the environmental impact of packaging. Recycling reduces energy use, and it cuts greenhouse gas emissions—the equivalent of removing 28 million cars from the road in one year, in the case of paper recycling, according to the U.S. EPA. Plus, recycling industries create significantly more and better jobs than simply hauling and burying garbage.
Simply put, when materials have value, burying them in a big hole in the ground is an egregious waste of resources.
But looking only at recycling when reviewing the sustainability of packaging is sort of like choosing a spouse based solely on good looks—there’s lots more to consider. (Such as a warm heart. And cooking skills would be nice. Oh, yes … and a good income. Hey, I’m on a professor’s salary.)
There actually are standards for measuring environmental sustainability that look at impacts across the entire “life cycle” of packaging. This includes all the material and energy inputs and outputs of the packaging. Whew—that gets complicated real quick. We need to look at energy used in manufacturing, water use, energy used in transportation, greenhouse gas and other emissions, impacts of solid waste disposal and so on.
And then there’s the big impact: food waste. Just imagine all the energy and resources invested in growing, protecting, delivering, preparing and serving our food, and the accompanying impact on the environment. To protect that investment, we should use the packaging that delivers more food with less food waste and packaging waste.
And this is precisely where plastic packaging contributes to sustainability. And why Plastics Make it Possible is the official Recycling and Sustainability Partner for the 2013 New York City Wine and Food Festival.
Why Plastics are Well-suited for Packaging
The very nature of plastics—lightweight yet strong—makes them ideal for all sorts of packaging and helps minimize the environmental impact of the packaging. A recent life cycle study compared six types of plastic packaging (caps and closures, beverage containers, other rigid containers, carrier bags, stretch/shrink wrap and other flexible packaging) in the U.S. to the alternatives made with other materials.
The findings are stark. The alternatives for these six types of plastic packaging would:
- require 450 percent more material by weight;
- require 80 percent more energy demand—on an annual basis, that’s equivalent to the energy from more than 91 oil supertankers; and
- result in 130 percent more global warming potential impacts—that’s equivalent to adding 15.7 million more cars to our roads each year.
This means that plastic packaging delivers more food with significantly less waste, energy use and global warming potential. Wow.
More Benefits of Plastic Packaging
In addition to these benefits, plastic packaging can provide barriers to oxygen, light, temperatures, moisture, microbes, critters and dirt, which can greatly extend the shelf life of food and retard spoilage—leading to less food waste. Studies find that up to ten times more resources (materials, energy, water) are used to make and distribute food than are used to make the packaging that protects it.
In the case of plastic packaging, the numbers can be even better—for example, only three percent of the energy used to produce a loaf of store-brought bread is needed to make its thin, lightweight plastic bread bag.
In other words, plastic packaging is an investment in protecting our food—and the resources we use to produce it.
More food delivered without damage and loss. Less packaging waste. Less food waste. Now that’s a healthy contribution to sustainability.
BTW: I’m still waiting for someone to offer me tickets to the New York City Wine and Food Festival. Maybe next year…