Does Plastic Food Packaging Benefit the Environment?

Vacuum sealed steak in plastic packaging

The Economist  Magazine Says: Yes.

How many times has this happened to you? You open the fridge planning to cook that steak or some other food you recently bought only to find that it smells funky and has spoiled. So you have to throw it away—along with all the money you spent on it.

What if we could make that steak or tuna filet or cucumber last another day? Or more? What if a little bit of packaging could extend the life of your food, so it’s less likely to spoil before you have a chance to eat it?

A recent article in The Economist explored that idea and found that plastic packaging can do that… while reducing our environmental impact. It may seem counterintuitive to some, but the article “Food packaging is not the enemy of the environment that it is assumed to be” points out that “food wrappings can in fact be an environmental boon. By more than doubling the time that some meat items can stay on shelves, for example, better packaging ensures that precious resources are used more efficiently.”

Here’s the thing … energy and resources must be expended to manufacture any type of packaging, but as The Economist points out, a ton of food waste produces far more carbon dioxide than a ton of packaging. And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans wasted more than 38 million tons of food in 2014. All that waste has huge negative consequences for the environment, resulting not only in increased greenhouse gas emissions but also wasted water, energy, and other resources that go into food production.

What exactly does The Economist mean by “better packaging”? The article explains that when it comes to making perishable foods last longer on store shelves or in consumers’ refrigerators, “vacuum packaging helps enormously.”

“Advanced plastic packaging provides a protective ‘skin’ that helps keep oxygen away from food, slowing spoilage and increasing shelf life.”

Advanced plastic packaging provides a protective “skin” that helps keep oxygen away from food, slowing spoilage and increasing shelf life. Vacuum-packaged meat, for example, can stay on shelves from five to eight days, rather than two to four.

“Some supermarkets are trying to cut down on packaging because the common perception is that it is wasteful,” The Economist says. “But cutting the amount of plastic covering food makes no sense if products then spoil faster.” In other words, smart use of plastic packaging can prevent a whole lot of food waste … and the environmental damage caused by wasted food.

The Economist’s findings are supported by a recent study from Trucost, a consulting firm that supplies sustainability data. Trucost found that plastic packaging reduces food waste for sirloin steak by almost half compared to conventional packaging. And these benefits go way beyond your individual household food budget—they help the North American economy and environment. For every additional one percent of steak sold in modern plastic packaging, we derive an impressive $2.8 million in environmental cost savings. Beyond modern packaging for steak, Trucost found that the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods is nearly four times less than the costs of other materials.

So lightweight plastic packaging can help the environment. A lot. As The Economist puts it, when we use better packaging, “Planet and profits both benefit.”