Efficient packaging is a good way to reduce food losses and reduce the environmental impact of the food distribution chain since the impact of food waste is often greater than that of packaging.
Understanding when packaging is really needed is the biggest challenge at this stage. A study carried out in the Netherlands showed that fresh carrots sold in bulk have a less environmental impact than packaged frozen ones. However, since the freezing process is intended to extend the shelf life of the product, carrots from the season that have been frozen and packaged are probably a better option than off-season bulk carrots produced in greenhouses.
Therefore, although packaging increases greenhouse gas emissions due to material extraction, processing and energy use, its use needs to be compared to the potential emissions of food waste.
Post-harvest impacts are highly dependent on the energy source used. In the case of packaging, its contribution to the carbon footprint is influenced by the recycling rate of packaging materials (for example, glass bottles, metal jars and cans). Higher recycling rates would theoretically reduce relative greenhouse gas emissions, as in the reuse of glass bottles, where the packaging does not need to be redone.
On your weekly grocery haul, you have probably noticed how most products are highly packaged. The packaging does preserve our food, but it also causes more waste than needed. Plastic packaging is sometimes necessary to preserve our food and reduce waste during transportation. A cucumber wrapped in a 1.5g plastic foil will survive 14 days on a supermarket shelf, whereas a cucumber without its plastic film only 3 days.
One of the most prolific places that we find single-use plastics and excessive packaging is in the foods that we buy. Food wrapping serves a purpose by keeping a product clean and stable. The problem is that most of this packaging, aside from a few creative packaging endeavours, is designed to be single-use. Opened and thrown away.
Yes, plastic packaging is sometimes needed to sustain food quality and safety. However, many products are packaged for customers convenience. You probably recall some products that are over-packaged
A study has found that 79% of consumers in the UK agree that products are over-packaged. Another one discovered that 76% of Germans prefer their fruit and veggies package-free. (6)
Although new forms of packaging are always being developed, currently the production of glass, cardboard, plastic and paper for food, uses the largest amount of packaging materials produced. Equalling approximately two-thirds of the total of all packaging produced. Although some newer plastic substitutes are made up of vegetable matter such as corn, the rest is still made from fossil fuels. Even cardboard packaging is often lined with plastic for food items.
Food packaging and the consequences on the environment
The consequences of food packaging from littering our waterways to the effects on soil, and air quality from landfills and incineration, as well as damaging marine and wildlife, is at a critical level.
Litter from food packaging is one major problem. It blocks stormwater drains, ending up in streams, rivers and the ocean. It also causes serious problems for our wildlife, when it is frequently mistaken for food, often causing severe injury.
Food packaging also has a negative effect on the environment from the outset. It does this by wasting valuable resources such as water, aluminium, tin, steel, sand, trees and energy in its production. Producing packaging takes a lot of energy, and when we just throw it out all of these natural resources are just lost. Amidst this concern, there’s another largely hidden dimension of the plastic crisis: it’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
This is also the stage where toxic air emissions and greenhouse gases flood into our airways from the combustion of fuels. Heavy metals are also released into the atmosphere and through wastewater.
As most people are aware, un-recycled plastics that make their way into landfill and waterways take an extremely long time to break down, if they break down at all. The EPA reports the frightening truth, that every bit of plastic ever made still exists now.