How Are Plastics Helping Curb Food Waste?

Woman looking at expiration date in kitchen

Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

In a previous article in this publication, Plastics Make it Possible honored the recipients of the 2015 DuPont Awards for Packaging Innovations, highlighting the contributions of award-winning plastic packaging to sustainability. Many of this year’s winners exemplified the sustained efforts of those in the plastic packaging supply chain to diminish their environmental footprint.

The results of these efforts today can be measured in life cycle studies that demonstrate that lightweight plastic packaging typically uses less material than alternatives, which results in less packaging waste, and also uses less energy and produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And studies today also find that packaging can be part of the solution for tackling food waste by helping prevent food spoilage and ensure food quality and safety along the supply chain and at home.

Despite the critical role of modern plastic packaging in preventing both packaging waste and food waste, opinion surveys generally find that most of us Americans are unaware or skeptical of these contributions. So it’s helpful to highlight these contributions—repeatedly, loudly, compellingly—which is one of the purposes of Plastics Make it Possible.

To explore public opinions, earlier this year the firm TNS Global conducted a survey[1] of 1,000 adult Americans on attitudes toward food waste and packaging, on behalf of Plastics Make it Possible. The survey found that 76 percent of us say we throw away leftovers in our households at least once a month, while 53 percent throw away leftovers every week. And 51 percent of us say we throw away food that we bought but never used.

And we apparently underestimate the value of all that that wasted food. Survey respondents estimated wasting $640 in household food each year. But U.S. government figures[2] are closer to $900 average household—and more than $1,500 for a family of four.

Just how much does this annual $900 worth of wasted food per U.S. household add up to? The U.S. EPA[3] says that as a nation we generated 37 million tons of food waste in 2013. The Department of Agriculture[4] estimates that 30-40 percent of post-harvest food—from farm to fork—goes uneaten in our nation. That’s a massive amount of food—and it has an accompanying massive impact on the environment.

Wasted food today is the most prevalent material in landfills, according to EPA[5]. Decomposing food becomes a significant source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But it’s impact goes way beyond landfills and air emissions. As EPA[6] notes: “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.” And researchers at Johns Hopkins University[7] who conducted a survey on similar topics write: “Because wasting food means wasting all the food’s ‘embodied’ … environmental impacts, this loss contributes extensive water, air and soil contamination …”

Imagine 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, along with the accompanying impact on the environment.

The TNS Global survey found that we’re not blithely cavalier about this waste. Seventy percent of us say we are bothered by the amount of food wasted in the U.S. When asked what bugs us about it, 79 percent say it is concern over the cost of wasted food, while 45 percent say we are bothered by others not having enough to eat.

But what about concern over all that wasted food’s impact on the environment? Well, only 15 percent of us make the link between food waste and its large impact on environment.

Regardless where our concern lies—money lost, hunger, environmental impact—nearly all of us (96 percent according to the survey) say we take one or more steps to prevent food waste, such as eating leftovers and avoiding over-buying of perishables.

Those of us in the packaging world understand that proper plastic (and other) packaging plays a huge role before and after we buy groceries. For example, packaging made with plastic helps prevent food waste by providing barriers to oxygen, light, temperatures, moisture, microbes, and other factors that lead to spoilage. In addition, it can contribute to important consumer benefits such as appearance, freshness, convenience, and portion control, which also can help reduce wasted food.

And these advances keep coming … plastic vacuum packaging for meat that can result in 75 percent less food waste than store-wrapped meat … active packaging that incorporates antimicrobials to help fend off spoilage … plastic sensors under development that could monitor a food’s actual freshness.

Beyond cutting down on wasted food, proper packaging is a wise investment because it can save all those wasted resources mentioned above. The Industry Council for Research on Packaging and the Environment[8] calculates 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 wasting food can squander ten times more resources than those used to make the packaging that protects it.

Given all the recent innovations in plastic (and other) packaging, such as those honored by the DuPont awards, using proper packaging has never been easier. But, among other results, the survey clearly uncovered a need for a broader understanding of the environmental impact of wasted food and the role that proper packaging plays in preventing it.

“Just a little bit of plastic packaging can prevent a whole lot of food waste,” said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council, which sponsors the Plastics Make it Possible® initiative and the TNS Global survey. “Proper packaging is essential. This survey demonstrates that we must raise awareness of the negative impacts of wasted food and the positive role lightweight packaging can play in prevention. Improving the way we protect and preserve foods can help consumers save money, get more food to people who need it, and significantly reduce our environmental footprint.”