Plastic Packaging for Frozen Food Yields Less Waste

Frozen salmon in a plastic bag

Food waste is a global problem with many causes. Part of a series on the topic, this article focuses on how plastics used in frozen food packaging help reduce food (and packaging) waste.

How much food do we Americans throw out each year? It’s probably more than you think.

Although calculating food waste is a tricky endeavor, some experts estimate that food loss—from the farm through distribution to our table—is approximately 40 percent in the U.S.

Forty percent!

And here’s another gloomy statistic—according to EPA, more food becomes municipal solid waste “than any other single material … In 2010 alone, more than 34 million tons of food waste was generated.

Just imagine all the time, energy, and resources involved in growing, protecting, delivering, preparing, and serving that food, as well as the accompanying impact on the environment. And then imagine simply throwing it all away. What a waste … And how is this sustainable?

While those are national figures, there are steps many of us take as individuals and families to waste less food. Here’s a look at one …

Plastic Packaging and Frozen Food

Although we all enjoy meals made from scratch with locally sourced foods, we can’t always buy local or find the right fresh ingredients at the local market. And sometimes we just don’t have the time to prepare such a meal (working late, daughter’s soccer match, son’s recital, second job, etc.). In those cases, we often rely on food from the grocer’s freezer section, due to convenience, availability of a broad variety of options, easy meal prep, and more.

And by doing so, we (perhaps unwittingly) often decrease food waste—which is frequently made possible by plastics.

Modern frozen food packaging has advanced dramatically since the 1920s when Clarence Birdseye developed methods for quick freezing foods. While frozen food today is packaged in many materials, technological advances coupled with the rise of the microwave have made plastics the go-to choice for many frozen food choices, from vegetable medleys to ready-to-heat meals to gourmet ice cream. Plastic packaging often leads to less food waste by helping preserve fresh flavors in frozen food, reducing spoilage and significantly extending shelf life.

And thin, lightweight plastic packaging also leads to less packaging waste. For example, many frozen ready-to-heat meals such as stir-fries now are packaged in thin, lightweight plastics that help preserve freshness. Today we can create quick and easy meals using minimalist packaging that can be scrunched up to about the size of a poker chip.

So we can save more food and grocery money and create less waste.

Here are some examples of how plastics help reduce frozen food and packaging waste:

  • Airtight Freezer Foods: Under-protected food stored in the freezer absorbs nasty odors and flavors and then dries out, resulting in “freezer burn” and wasted food. Factory sealed plastic containers and bags help preserve the flavor, texture and nutrients of food by locking out air. So we can enjoy ripe-picked fruits and vegetables that don’t spoil … find wild-caught, individually wrapped salmon filets from Alaska … and buy all sorts of prepared meals that create no food scrap waste. All protected by thin, lightweight plastics.
  • “Active” Packaging: Sometimes called “intelligent” or “smart” packaging, active packaging helps protect both fresh and frozen food by doing more than simply containing it. For example, antimicrobials can be incorporated into the plastics used in packaging—this can help mitigate the growth of harmful microorganisms, which helps preserve food quality and results in less spoilage and waste.
  • Plastic Steamer Bags: Many frozen food makers now sell a large variety of side and main dishes in lightweight plastic pouches designed for heating in the microwave. Consumers simply place the frozen package in the microwave, and moisture steams the food inside plastic pouch—in one simple step, with little cleanup and no food prep waste. These pouches now vary from single-serve to family size, so we can buy only the amount we need to cook.
  • Do-it-Ourselves Frozen Foods: Today we package homemade meals, store-bought foods and leftovers in all sizes of plastic zipper bags—and then purge much of the air before freezing (pre-wrapping foods in plastic stretch wrap also helps). To take this concept even further, home vacuum sealers remove nearly all air from the plastic bag prior to sealing, which better protects food to reduce waste—this storage system is particularly popular with warehouse store shoppers and game hunters. Similar to factory sealed packaging, these lightweight plastic bags help reduce the food’s exposure to air, which increases shelf life and reduces spoilage.
  • Recycled Plastic Packaging: Thanks to new recycling technologies, some frozen food makers are using recycled plastics in their packaging. One major frozen food maker uses plastics from recycled plastic bottles in frozen meal trays for several of its food brands—the company says this diverts an estimated 8 million plastic bottles from the waste stream annually, which results in less valuable material buried in landfills.

And while these advances may be apparent to us as consumers, we probably don’t often see the plastic packaging that protects bulk food during transport and the enormous amount of frozen food sold to restaurants and institutions, which also helps greatly reduce food waste.

Innovations in plastics and other technologies will continue to lead to advances in frozen food and other packaging—advances that allow us to store food better and longer, with less packaging waste. That sounds like a recipe we all can follow … and a rather sensible contribution to sustainability.