While packaging waste is a critical issue, it must be considered alongside the issue of food waste. Fortunately, advances in plastic food packaging are helping to delay spoilage across the food production cycle more sustainably.
Protecting food and preventing spoilage have always been prerequisites for food packaging. From plastic bread bags to vacuum packaging for all types of meats and cheeses, plastics allow food producers to reach faraway markets and give customers peace of mind that their food is safe and secure.
At the same time, the statistics on both food waste and plastic waste remain stark and sobering. A recent United Nations report finds that 17 percent of food produced globally is wasted each year, amounting to one billion tons of food waste and accounting for an estimated 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And earlier this year, The Washington Post reported that “the carbon footprint of US food waste is greater than that of the airline industry.”
Meanwhile, the packaging industry is working furiously to address the issue of plastic waste and create a circular future for packaging. Great work is being done to create packaging that is 100 percent recyclable and 100 percent recycled.
While there is no doubt that packaging waste must be addressed, it must be considered alongside the issue of food waste. If the goal is to minimize overall GHG emissions, and conserve resources such as water and land, then companies must use a balanced scorecard to ensure we make the best decisions to protect the environment.
Fortunately, advances in more sustainable plastic food packaging are helping to delay spoilage across the food production cycle.
The Food & Specialty Packaging team at Dow is focused on ways to both maximize the shelf life of most foods and minimize the amount of packaging used. As an example, let’s consider the lifecycle of meat and how packaging can maximize freshness:
Packaging format matters: Sealed polystyrene trays with cling film offer only minimal shelf life (7-10 days), and they have some of the highest weights of any current meat packaging formats. The good news is that other packaging formats offer lower packaging weight and longer shelf life than polystyrene with cling film. For example, shifting to vacuum thermoformed or vacuum-skin packaging can extend shelf life to about three weeks while minimizing packaging weight.
Sealants are game changers: The right sealant can help prevent drip loss and keep packages fresher, longer. It can also minimize leaks.
Durability is critical: The right mix of stiffness and toughness is essential for protection, especially for e-commerce applications. If the package is punctured or torn at any point, spoiled meats and their negative environmental impacts are practically unavoidable.
As we work to create more sustainable packaging, we must take a hard look at how our choices affect shelf life and food waste. We have a unique opportunity, created by the shift to recyclable and reusable packaging, to consider alternative formats and designs that will minimize plastic and food waste.