Our society’s reliance on plastic is a conundrum. It continues our dependence on fossil fuels, the majority is not recycled (or even recyclable), and its escape into natural environments is wreaking havoc in ways we are only beginning to understand. Yet at the same time, plastic packaging has played an important role in the modern food system. Plastic is cheap and lightweight but also protective – keeping food products clean, safe, convenient, and often helping them last longer. That last point is arguably the most important in a growing debate over society’s use of plastic and a recognition that reducing food waste is one of the most effective ways to cut global greenhouse gas emissions.
Plastic is manufactured from crude oil or natural gas feedstocks, but some Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs)1,2 have shown that because packaging often makes up such a small percentage of food product weight, the contribution of plastic to the product’s overall emissions footprint is relatively small. For example, the Impact Calculator on ReFED's Insights Engine shows that the farm to fork emissions for 1kg of tomatoes is 1.5 kg CO2e. Of that, the packaging contributes just 0.15 kg CO2e (10%)3. So the reasoning for continued use of plastic is that the emissions avoided by preventing food waste vastly outweigh the environmental cost of the packaging.
Somewhat surprising, then, are the findings from UK charity WRAP’s latest report, showing that for certain fruits and vegetables, plastic packaging actually increases the amount of food waste generated by households.
Key to interpreting these results is taking a step back to think about the role that packaging plays as a food product moves through the supply chain. Manufacturers and retailers make logistical packaging decisions upstream about how best to protect food during processing, transport, and storage for sale; they also want to extend shelf-life as long as possible and make it easy for workers to handle the products. These decisions do prioritize avoiding food waste, because these stakeholders lose money when a product is damaged or spoiled.
But we should also look at decisions made from the consumer perspective – packaging should be sensitive to portion size and convenience, as well as provide information to buyers about what they are eating. Consumer preferences related to purchasing can be more readily gauged by retailers based on in-store activity – they have less insight to usage and consumption at home. This means that the decision to use plastic, and how much of it, can be made for any number of reasons – and what the grocery store thinks is best may not line up with what’s best for the customer.
The WRAP study recommends selling produce loose, which does two things– it gives customers the flexibility to buy only the amount they need (reducing waste of those last few potatoes in the sack) and removes a best-before/sell-by label (allowing the customer to decide for themselves when produce is spoiled, rather than tossing it on a somewhat arbitrary date that generally refers to quality rather than safety). The report acknowledges, however, that there may be scenarios in which it can be proven that a label does prevent food waste, in which case the use of packaging may be justified.
The results suggest that the answer to reducing food waste through packaging (or lack thereof) has more to do with understanding the causes of food waste along the value chain, and making design choices that target those causes while also meeting the necessary storage, handling, and communication requirements.
Some good news is that the choice for packaging does not need to be plastic or nothing at all – besides using recoverable/recyclable materials, manufacturers are exploring biodegradable plastics, bio-based plastics, and packaging specifically designed to reduce waste with the end-user in mind. ReFED’s Solution Provider Directory has information about organizations working on cutting-edge packaging solutions. Our friends at the Climate Collaborative offer a range of sustainable packaging case studies and other resources. And the Sustainable Packaging Coalition will soon be releasing a report on best practices for reducing food waste.
1: https://css.umich.edu/publication/life-cycle-assessment-food-packaging-and-waste-%E2%80%93-phase-2-case-study-results,https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226482170_Role_of_Packaging_in_LCA_of_Food_Products, https://www.foodpackagingforum.org/news/report-investigates-greenhouse-gas-emissions-packaging-and-food-waste
2: Note that some of these studies can be commissioned by packaging manufacturers or otherwise face concerns about objectivity.
3: This University of Michigan food packaging LCA shows that this number can increase to nearly 20% of the footprint for lettuce depending on the packaging used, but that for food types that have an even higher production footprint, such as beef, the contribution of plastic packaging is 1% or less.