Have you ever thought about that clear plastic over your favorite spicy chicken wings or veggie and hummus sandwich? Yes, it’s true that packaging is necessary for food to be delivered in good quality all the way from production to consumption. Disposable packaging is really convenient, too, so it’s become an essential part of most contemporary food and beverage supply chains. Yet environmental problems related to packaging waste have grown exponentially during the last decades. Overpackaging products is rampant. With the carbon intensity of throwaway plastics reaching a zenith, the time is now for Big Food & Beverage to detox from its plastic addiction.
Plastic burdens municipal recycling systems. Short of a plastic ban, what can be done? Meaningful action to reduce Big Food & Beverage’s plastic footprint is imperative. Yet, reducing reliance on plastics within this gargantuan industry has been challenging, mainly due to concerns related to costs, convenience, and consumption safety.
What’s the Problem with Plastic?
Food and packaging/containers account for almost 45% of the materials thrown into landfills in the US. (China stopped importing US trash in 2018, which has resulted in collecting, recycling, and landfilling plastic waste costs to soar.)
Big Food & Beverage is complicit with Big Oil in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That’s because petrochemical feedstock naphtha and other oils refined from crude oil are used as feedstocks for petrochemical crackers that produce the basic building blocks for making plastics.
According to the EPA, packaging products are comprised of different plastic resins. Some of these include polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soft drink and water bottles, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) milk and water jugs, film products (including bags and sacks) made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and other containers and packaging (including clamshells, trays, caps, lids, egg cartons, loose fill, produce baskets, coatings and closures) made up of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), polypropylene (PP) and other resins.
Technological advances, coupled with increasing demands by consumers, have led to a drastic increase in plastic production. The urgent need to improve the sustainability of our food systems includes the development of more sustainable food packaging. Striking the balance among food affordability, costs, or convenience pressures alongside developing a green supply chain is no simple task.
To circumvent those obstacles, Big Food & Beverage companies often disseminate public relations filled with false promises about Big Food plastic packaging, according to a report from ClientEarth.
- technologies that are unproven at scale
- waste management practices that raise environmental concerns
- substituting one single-use material for another
- cleanup activities that do nothing to address the source of plastic waste
- plastic offsetting schemes
- downcycling plastics into product that cannot be recycled themselves
Can Government Regulations Help with Plastic Addiction?
Plastic pollution is at a crisis point. Governments have responded to public concerns by devising rules that seek to tackle packaging waste — single-use plastics in particular — and improve recycling and waste management systems. In March, 2022, 175 countries passed a resolution on the first treaty to directly tackle the 9 billion tons of plastic produced since the plastic age ramped up in the 1950s.
Many of these new norms will become effective in the next years, hopefully creating a worldwide regulative trend that can help promote more sustainable packaging.
A study out of the EU says it all. Moving away from the single-use, throw-away culture through rethinking design, reducing resource use and waste, and supporting reuse and recycling are key to achieving a circular economy for food packaging and to decreasing its environmental impact.
Big Food & Beverage needs to reduce and minimize its environmental impacts. This includes:
- reducing the amount of packaging and packaging waste
- promoting reusable packaging and recycled and renewable materials
- innovative packaging solutions, with consumption safety as an overarching priority
New York Governor Kathy Hochul introduced a proposal in her 2023 budget to incentivize producers to reduce waste, “make products that are easier to recycle, and support a circular economy.” The proposal has since been eliminated from the state budget. However, since January, 2022, no covered food service provider or store is allowed to sell, offer for sale, or distribute disposable food service containers that contain expanded polystyrene foam in New York. The authorities encourage the use of reusable, recyclable, and compostable items, source reduction, and items made using recycled content where possible.
Zero plastic packaging supermarkets have become a trend which is on the increase across Europe. France has set the goal to recycle 100% of plastics by 2025 and phase out single-use plastics by 2040. Plastic packaging for nearly all fruit and vegetables has been prohibited there since January, 2022, and under the French packaging law, companies pay less for their recyclable packaging. Plus Italy’s plastic packaging tax is now expected to come into effect in January 2023.
Australia aims to phase out single-use plastics and reach ambitious recycling goals under the 2025 National Packaging Targets. These require that all packaging must be 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable, 70% of plastic packaging is recycled or composted, and 50% of average recycled content is included in the packaging.
Transportation is Key to Reducing Plastic Addiction
One of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to cut emissions, energy, and consumption of raw materials is to rethink the way food and drinks are packaged and transported.
Green Seal® is a global nonprofit organization that pioneered the ecolabeling movement with a mission to transform the economy for a healthier, greener world. Its certification is a process that ensures that a product or service meets the rigorous performance, health, and environmental criteria in Green Seal’s environmental leadership standards. More than 100 federal, state, and local purchasing policies specify Green Seal, and more than 33,000 products meet the standards for performance, safety, and health.
Its Restaurant and Food Service Operation standards specific to waste reduction and management include:
- developing a waste management plan
- conducting waste audits
- operating a recycling program
- diverting a certain percentage of waste from landfill
- reducing a certain percentage of waste generation
- composting wasted food
- avoiding or eliminating disposable products or service
Starch-based materials are considered a viable option to plastic packaging. These materials have great potential as biodegradable food packaging solutions that could reduce undesirable environmental pollution. The functional attributes of starch-based biodegradable materials can be expanded or enhanced by adding other biopolymers or additives. However, like most biomaterials, scalability of production and building economies of scale to reduce unitary costs are a challenge. With low margins in food distribution, higher costs would compromise the products’ competitive advantage.
Instead, many of the strategies adopted so far are based on reducing the size and weight of bottles and cans and stepping up efforts to get consumers to recycle containers. But, more promising, reducing the use of cans and bottles altogether has added benefits in reducing shipping emissions and energy use.
An expose in Bloomberg Green outlined some innovative companies that are creating sustainable packaging for Big Food & Beverage.
- Colorado-based BrewVo has developed a way to extract water and alcohol from beer before shipment and reconstitute it at the destination.
- London-based Packamama makes lie-flat wine bottles that are 87% lighter than traditional cylindrical glass ones and 40% smaller, so almost twice the amount of product can be shipped in the same space, according to the company. It said sales volumes rose more than 20-fold in 2020, and growth has continued despite the pandemic.
- EcoSpirits has created partnerships with London’s Savoy and Singapore’s Raffles Hotel and Pernod Ricard to transport liquid in bulk. After it reaches its destination, the liquids are decanted into smaller, reusable containers or dispensed directly into a glass via an integral tap.
In 2021, Mars Wrigley and Danimer Scientific announced a new 2-year partnership to develop compostable packaging for Skittles in the US.
These examples are a good, albeit slow start to eliminating Big Food & Beverage’s plastic addiction. Innovations in sustainable packaging materials have the potential to be a part of the solution but only if they are coupled with large-scale efforts to reduce the amount of packaging that companies choose to use.