A Professor Plastics Feature ArticleSee Other Articles
I hate wasting food. When I hang out in the university’s cafeterias and restaurants, I am flabbergasted by the amount of food we throw away. My initial reaction: think of all the money that students (wait … parents?) are wasting. But lately I’ve been looking at this problem from another angle: the harmful impact of wasted food on the environment. Unbeknownst to most people, the impact is huge.
A recent survey completed for Plastics Make it Possible® found that 70 percent of Americans say they are bothered by the amount of food wasted in the U.S. Why? When asked what bothers us, most of us say the money lost (makes sense—food isn’t cheap), and about half of us are concerned that others don’t have enough to eat.
But as a nation we really don’t seem to be aware of the environmental impact of wasted food. The survey suggests that only about 15 percent of us are making the link between wasted food and its large impact on the environment. Interestingly, a recent survey by Johns Hopkins University found pretty much the same thing: environmental impacts ranked last among survey participants’ reasons to reduce food waste.
So let’s explore that link between wasted food and the environment for a bit … and then look at why proper packaging—such as modern plastic containers, bags, and wraps—can play such an important role in preventing wasted food.
Scope & Impact
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 30-40 percent of food goes uneaten in the United States. Worldwide figures are around 33 percent. Yikes. (You can read more here about the scope of food waste.)
The U.S. EPA says:
- “In 2013, Americans generated about 37 million tons of food waste … It is the most prevalent material reaching landfills.”
- “When food is disposed in a landfill it rots and becomes a significant source of methane—a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Landfills are a major source of human-related methane in the United States, accounting for more than 20 percent of all methane emissions.”
- “… approximately 13 percent of greenhouse gases in the United States are associated with growing, manufacturing, transporting, and disposing of food. By reducing the amount of food wasted, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
- “There are many resources needed to grow food, including water, fertilizers, pesticides, and energy. By wasting food, you are also wasting the resources that went into growing it.”
OK, I’m convinced. It’s a really big environmental problem, not just an issue of cost or scarcity.
That last bullet point above bears amplification. Imagine for a moment all the time, energy, and resources involved in growing, protecting, delivering, preparing, and serving our food. And then imagine simply throwing away up to 40 percent of it. And then think about the accompanying impact on the environment (not to mention the people who need it). Mind-boggling.
So what’s that got to do with (plastic) packaging? Well, it appears that many people are not aware of the role packaging plays in preventing food waste. For example, the Plastics Make it Possible® commissioned survey found that only 46 percent of Americans believe that proper packaging helps prevent food waste.
OK, so a little education is in order to illuminate the strong link between proper packaging and reduced food waste. (Good thing I’m an educator!)
Here are a few points to chew on …
- Proper packaging is a wise investment because it saves resources. “People are seldom aware of the stresses and strains that a product has to survive, so they don’t think about how it needs to be protected,” said Jane Bickerstaffe, director of INCPEN, the Industry Council for Research on Packaging and the Environment. “One of INCPEN’s roles is to explain what packaging does. A telling fact is that ten times more resources—materials, energy, water—are used to make and distribute food than are used to make the packaging to protect it.” So when we waste food, we may be wasting 10 times more resources than those used to make the packaging that protects it. That hits the environment hard.
- An April 2015 study in Europe called How Packaging Contributes to Food Waste Prevention finds that packaged fresh goods have a smaller environmental footprint than unpackaged food (even if the packaging is not recycled). The study finds that proper packaging results in less greenhouse gas emissions. Even though more packaging is being used, less food is being wasted, leading to a lower overall carbon footprint. The study’s project leader said: “Food packaging can make an important contribution to environmental protection, especially if it is the right packaging for the right application.”
- A review of packaging that reduces food waste by EUROPEN (The European Organization for Packaging and the Environment) concludes: “Packaging is part of the solution to tackle food waste. Packaging prevents food spoilage, ensures food quality and safety along the supply chain and at home, informs consumers on how to use and store packaged food products, increases shelf-life and provides portion sizes answering the multiple needs of consumer lifestyles and demographic changes.”
Plastic Packaging’s Role
OK, so that’s what packaging in general does to help reduce food waste and to lighten the load on the environment. How does plastic packaging help?
Well, I’ve written before about how plastic packaging’s inherent characteristics—lightweight yet tough—result in a lighter environmental footprint than alternatives. That’s a great start, but to protect and deliver food to us safely, packaging needs to provide various barriers to oxygen, light, temperatures, moisture, microbes, critters, and dirt. That’s precisely where plastic packaging also shines. Here are a few notable examples:
- Ultrathin plastic film helps block transmission of oxygen, increasing shelf life of fresh meats to 21 days or more, and plastic vacuum packaging prevents discoloration of meats and extends shelf life 10 times longer than store-wrapped meat, resulting in 75 percent less food waste.
- High-tech food pouches are made with super-thin layers of plastic and other films that work together to protect food and keep it fresher longer.
- “Active” plastic packaging can help preserve food freshness by various means, such as capturing a reduced-oxygen air mixture in the package, controlling the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and incorporating antimicrobials.
- Factory-sealed plastic containers and bags help preserve the flavor, texture, and nutrients of food by locking out air, preventing absorption of nasty odors and flavors, and averting “freezer burn,” all of which lead to food waste.
- Why on Earth wrap a cucumber or an apple in plastic film? Because it can greatly increase shelf life to help reduce food waste.
And think about it: can you even imagine life without airtight plastic zipper bags? They’re my go-to packaging for keeping leftovers fresh.
So as we work to prevent wasted food, to save money or to help the environment, let’s remember how plastic (and other) packaging actually can help us do both. And repeat after me: Plastic packaging actually can be part of the solution.
Want to learn more? Here’s a great article for further reading on how plastic packaging is helping the global “War on Food Waste.”
TNS Global conducted the survey in April 2015 of 1,000 adults on attitudes toward food waste and packaging.