Can food packaging & global health coexist?

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Look around you – how many plastic products do you see? For someone who’s trying to limit plastic use, I already count 12 products in my living room… and I haven’t even gotten to the kids’ toys yet.

But we can’t help it. Plastic makes our lives super convenient and our products cheaper, safer, and longer-lasting. Sadly, this material is also clogging up our waterways and shorelines, killing off species, and devastating our planet. With its approximate 400-year lifespan, most plastics have nowhere to go but up, whether heaped onto a towering pile or incinerated into greenhouse gases.

And almost half of the plastics we go through are from packaging, with food packaging being the largest contributor. This isn’t hard to believe, especially among those of us who order our groceries online.

The last time I received a grocery delivery, I opened up a box lined with a thin plastic film to find my produce individually wrapped in plastic bags. And my more delicate produce was even in a Styrofoam-like sheet within a plastic clamshell within the bag. Talk about Pandora’s box of mismanagement.

And yet, there is a reason for it. In fact, there are several.

A case for plastics

When growing up in a functional food system, it’s easy to overlook the many benefits we take for granted. Take, for instance, food safety. Contaminants like allergens, foodborne pathogens and safety hazards abound as food travels across the globe, so we must mitigate exposure when and where necessary.

With plastic, our global system has made food far less of a threat to our health than before its advent, with practices and procedures that keep our products safer and storing its nutritional content for longer. These coordinated efforts have made food distribution possible during even the worst of times (like during a pandemic).

Packaging also increases the shelf-life of perishable foods, giving us a chance to enjoy fresh raspberries in February and cook fresh Chilean and Norwegian salmon around the world. Without plastic, the raspberries would quickly grow mold and the salmon would harbor a dangerous amount of pathogens. See the chart to the right for more demonstrated benefits of food packaging advancements.

Plastic packaging also lowers transportation costs and fuel needs. Plastic containers can be impossibly thin and infinitely stackable. They’re also more supportive and water-resistant than cardboard, less rigid than tin, and far lighter and more durable than glass.

But isn’t plastic inherently bad? And made from things it supposedly offsets, like fuel and gas? This is where it gets hard to balance plastic’s omnipresence in global commerce.

Oh, it’s definitely bad…

In 2018, food containers and packaging generated more than 82 million tons of waste in the U.S. alone. With 122 million households in the U.S. at that time, that comes to 1,350 pounds of plastic waste per household in a single year.

And unfortunately, it’s only gotten worse. While supermarkets and manufacturers began implementing rigorous greenhouse gas-reducing strategies in the 2010s, the pandemic hit. This event alone reversed the course of seeing sizeable gains in slowing single-use plastic production.

During Covid, plastic production increased by 30% to meet CDC requirements for heightened hygiene efforts and consumer demand for online orders from supermarkets and retailers. Even more concerning, online grocery shopping spend isn’t slowing down anytime soon (see the projection through 2025 below).

To offset this increase in plastics production, Americans are recycling more than ever. Unfortunately, the issue extends beyond our immediate control — it’s in the hands of our municipal recycling programs. And some of these programs are more diligent about recycling than others.

The U.S. has historically sent approximately one-third of its recyclable waste abroad. Since 2018, when China stopped accepting shipments of our plastic waste, the U.S. redirected most of its recyclables to other countries, including Canada, Mexico, and Malaysia.

But as more countries refuse shipments, we are forced to use our own domestic recycling facilities more often. With sudden overuse and little to no budget allocated, these municipal plants grow in disrepair, resulting in only 9% of total recyclables currently getting recycled.

Recycling: breaking down a complicated process

Though the majority of plastic waste isn’t recycled because of lack of proper facilities, it’s also because recycling requires a very precise sorting process. For instance, even the smallest bit of food “contaminates” a potentially recyclable container.

Materials we assume are easily recyclable turn out to be the opposite. Take polymer films, like plastic wraps, grocery bags, and sandwich bags. Throw those into regular recycling bins and they can ruin the whole load. Low-quality, non-recyclable plastic film (often labeled as #4 LDPE plastics) contaminates higher-quality polymers and, due to sorting costs, the entire bin will likely be routed to the landfill or incinerator. So we must pay attention to those recyclable numbers on the bottom of a package.

On the other end of the packaging spectrum is highly complex, multi-layered packaging. Think that organic applesauce pouch or shelf-stable oat milk is recyclable?

The revolutionary yet complex design is anything but, as this illustration shows. Just recycle the plastic top (not included in this diagram, by the way), and throw the pouch or carton out. Even if it were recyclable, the residue inside can render it “contaminated”.

Some companies freely use the ubiquitous green triangle on their packaging, or tout their products as “organic” or “natural” without any further information or instruction (we’re looking at you, plastic bags and yogurt pouches).

This misleads many of us so we assume that these kinds of containers are universally recyclable. Until companies correct misleading recycling labels, this kind of packaging, plus the load of recyclables they’re combined with, are less likely to get recycled.

“You look at an organic, gluten-free kale chip package and it’s wrapped in seven plastics with undefined inks and metallized polymers. It doesn’t have a recycling symbol on it because you could never recycle it.

Isn’t it astonishing that we would have that much focus on what’s inside the package and so little focus on what’s outside?”

– William McDonough, sustainability designer & entrepreneur

What can all of us do?

While the market is growing for green packaging materials to replace many common plastics, we are still a ways off till we see widespread implementation, especially among common consumer goods. So what can we do to move this process along faster?

As regular grocery store customers, we have an impact and can reroute demand to improve channels and packaging. Even just implementing one or two of these tips can have a meaningful impact on your local recycling system, as well as the greater good of the environment:

  • Limit use of thin plastic films (#4 LDPE in above image), like plastic wrap and single-use resealable bags. And instead of recycling these at home, bring these products to grocery stores that recycle the menacing films.
  • Refrain from buying products with multiple materials, especially pouches and lined paper products. This includes milk and juice cartons with the screw-top and to-go containers and cups.
  • Just because a product is “organic” or “all natural” doesn’t mean it’s recyclable, so be sure to check the recycling label.
  • Avoid products with “pointless packaging”, like baby spinach that’s in a clear bag within a plastic clamshell. Packaging like this hurts the whole system.
  • Thoroughly wash out all recyclables. Even a small piece of food can render it “contaminated.”
  • Buy products with packaging that clearly states that it’s made from recycled materials.
  • When ordering food for takeout or delivery, ask the restaurant to exclude cutlery, packets, etc.
  • Consider composting, but don’t recycle compostable plastics – that will contaminate the whole load of plastic. Want to compost but afraid of pests or don’t have the space? Some Whole Foods stores have composting available.
  • Opt for glass food containers that you’ll use forever, instead of plastic ones.

The best thing we can do for global health?

Only buy what we know we’re going to consume. It’s a holistic solution that decreases food waste and packaging, lessens transport, reduces energy use and greenhouse gases, and improves our health and well-being while being mindful of the next generation.

Remember: everything comes at a cost. It’s tough to put into practice but here are some helpful grocery-store shopping tips.

Plastic food packaging: opportunity or lost cause?

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Plastic is ever-present, as seemingly ubiquitous as wood or metal. It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t a consumer product until after World War II when we had a significant surplus on our hands that was reserved for creating vehicle and munition parts (should the war have continued). That excess plastic was quickly and cleverly woven into our lives, making countless products cheaper, lighter, and longer-lasting. In fact, clocking in with a half-life of 400 years, many would argue that it’s too long-lasting.

A plastic love story

But plastic has its proven applications. Whether your primary concern is a meaningful reduction in food waste or freight costs, or improved sanitation practices during Covid, its benefits to our food system are substantial.

Let’s take Western Europe as an example. These countries have instituted food packaging practices across their supply chains, providing shoppers more time to consume every perishable item they purchase, thus increasing food safety measures while lowering food waste…and all at a reasonable price.

As insane as it sounds, perhaps the Earth benefits from plastic to some degree, too. Less food waste, more and varied food delivered directly to the consumer from around the world, and even fewer trucks on the road with lighter loads to carry equates to fewer greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

The elephant-sized container in the room

With its myriad benefits, plastics certainly have their place in our food system. But it becomes more complicated when only 9% of U.S. plastics are recycled, with the overwhelming majority being tossed out as trash to end up on shores, in watersheds, on roadsides, and landfills. And from there, it sits and degrades for hundreds of years, if it’s not incinerated into greenhouse gases first.

Like many things, a lack of foresight and preparation is to blame. Prior to 2018, China accepted the world’s plastic waste, so the U.S. and other countries sent it packing, literally, across the globe. But once China stopped taking foreign refuse, countries exporting their waste had to rely on their domestic facilities for processing. For the U.S., the infrastructure was ill-prepared for this sudden demand.

This is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports a lack of recycling facilities as the main contributor to unrecycled plastics. So even though many of us dutifully separate out our glass, plastic, and cardboard products each week, there’s little guarantee those items will be repurposed.

People don’t know what’s happening to their trash.

They think they’re saving the world…There have been no global regulations – just a long, dirty market that allows some companies to take advantage of a world without rules.”

– Andrew Spicer, Social Responsibility professor, University of South Carolina

There’s still a chance for these unrecycled recyclables to be repurposed…just most likely not here. About 1.2 billion pounds of plastic waste from the U.S. gets exported to Canada, as well as to developing nations like Mexico, Malaysia, India, and Vietnam.

Global garbage relocation

But this solution is counterproductive, as it requires transport and fuel costs to ship these plastics to countries that may not even have a waste management system for their own citizens. It is this gross inefficiency that made 189 countries agree to limit the amount of plastic waste shipped overseas as part of the 2019 Basel Convention, and more developing nations to refuse our plastic garbage.

And now it’s not even feasible to export the plastics we can’t handle. Towns like Stamford, Connecticut experienced the massive financial burden of exporting plastic waste in just one year, going from $95,000 in revenues by selling its recyclables, to paying $700,000 to haul it all away.

And so goes the continuing decline of U.S. recycling infrastructure. More and more municipalities, each one with its unique recycling guidelines, have determined that it was far more economical to just simply toss recycling in the garbage, resulting in incinerating more than half of recyclable plastics.

And, in the past, alternative options haven’t looked much better. Back in 2016, Trucost, S&P Global’s climate research division, published a study that found replacing plastic with a mix of alternative materials (e.g., recycled paper products, organic matter) may have four times the negative environmental impact than current plastic production.

But thanks to the research and actions of companies, universities, and countless others over the last few years, there is reason to believe the course of alternative packaging materials has pivoted. These efforts, when combined, are capable of disrupting the packaging industry. And we all stand to benefit from their progress.

Supermarket supply-chain sweep

Food retailers have a unique power to shape demand for single-use plastics. ReFED, a national nonprofit working to eliminate food waste, noted that grocers connect all points along the supply chain, from manufacturers to consumers. Though they cannot address single-use plastic waste alone, food retailers can exert that level and breadth of influence to drive change.

Regional grocers have restarted their reduction initiatives that were paused during the pandemic. Giant announced they will be free of single-use plastic by 2025. Aldi is committed to reducing and removing unnecessary plastic and packaging from their products. Kroger wants your trash. They encourage customers to mail in their used food packing made from TerraCycle.

Loop, a zero-waste grocer, collaborates with companies to stock products from national brands like Nature’s Path, Tropicana, Crest, and Clorox, in reusable containers. When the containers are empty, its customers return the packaging in a postage-paid reusable tote. And Loop is currently roping in several retail partners, like Kroger and Walgreens, to gain much-needed traction.

These companies clearly communicate their intention to reduce single-use plastics with specific dates. Their stores are also applying pressure across their supply chain to support their efforts, from demanding new packaging from suppliers to providing customers with on-site plastic film and composting management.

The green packaging frontier

The “green packaging” space is growing as more players enter the $290B international market with proprietary ‘green’ materials that can compete with plastic. Led by the food & beverage industry, this growth is fueled by stringent regulations on single-use plastics and consumer demand for sustainable packaging.

Amcor, a Swiss packaging company, created metal-free “AmLite Ultra”, an applied solution that makes those pesky multi-layer baby & toddler food pouches more recyclable. And, despite the increased demand for single-use plastics due to Covid, the company still pledges to develop all recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025.

Also based in Switzerland, Tetra Pak is using its position as a leader in packaging production to create new lines of plant-based polymers ethically sourced from Brazil-based petrochemical company, Braskem.

Imagine having all paper and plastic plates, cups, and straws compostable. NatureWorks uses carbohydrates from plants for more sustainable plastics and fibers used for 3D printing, injection molding, films, and foam.

A company I’ve seen multiple times at restaurants and grocery stores is VegWare, a leader in compostable foodservice packaging. Based in the U.K., the company prides itself on its award-winning products that are durable, lightweight and well-designed. My personal experience concurred: the straw didn’t disintegrate into my smoothie, even when I left it in the car for a while. That’s a win in my book.

Institutional expertise

And it’s not just companies jumping on the bandwagon. Researchers at Penn State developed an inexpensive, compostable “biofilm” that could replace plastic barrier coatings in food packaging.

And not to be outdone, researchers from Harvard’s School of Engineering & Applied Sciences and School of Public Health have teamed up to create a potentially disruptive technology called rotary jet-spinning (“RJS”) that has applications from healthcare to food packaging.

RJS product technology quickly wraps an object in a liquid polymer solution that solidifies to create a durable anti-microbial layer. Since the polymer is a naturally occurring polysaccharide, the wrap is biodegradable. Another benefit? The polymer has been proven to substantially increase produce shelf life.

With other green packaging players champing at the bit, there’s good reason to feel optimistic about plastic’s future in our food system. Much of its success will rely on creating a closed-loop system that’s prepared for recycling waste back into viable products.

Newtrient’s Carbon Quest

D2D’s Digging In talks with Mark Stoermann and Jamie Vander Molen about the approach to answering that question taken by Newtrient – a midwestern team of experts focused on helping producers find innovative solutions to challenges posed by climate change.

  • Listen to Mark and Jamie explain why technology and markets go hand-in-hand in advancing creative farming practices that sequester more of the carbon we need for healthy, regenerative soil.
  • Let them explain how cooperation and collaboration lead to effective new approaches to such things as waste management, tillage and cropping patterns – real-world answers to climate change that deliver both the environmental results we need and the farm profitability that makes improvement possible.
  • Learn how this positive approach to climate change can help agriculture deliver a disproportionate share of our overall carbon sequestration goals.
  • Hear the barriers to real progress that emerge when over-regulation stifles initiative and chokes off the curiosity that fuels entrepreneurship.

It’s a lively conversation with talented and passionate people – experts with deep roots in the dairy world and other farming sectors who recognize the power and potential of the agricultural sector in building a sustainable, market-based response to climate change. Together, they provide an upbeat overview of the ag world’s efforts to combat climate change – while providing an uninterrupted supply of the food we all need.

Give it a listen.  It’s time well spent.

Anybody Want a Job in Ag?

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A Perfect Storm of Labor Issues?

Labor issues have become one of the most significant challenges facing our efforts to move past the trauma to our food system caused by Covid. What’s just as bad, they complicate our efforts to combat the extraordinary inflationary pressures facing food consumers everywhere.

Labor issues are a complex mix of events and circumstances coming together in a perfect storm of real – and potentially expanding – challenges to our entire food system. In response, labor advocates and supportive politicians advance policies to attract and entice reluctant workers, with scant attention to the resulting higher labor costs, or the inflationary pressures they create for food consumers. The storm is becoming increasingly visible across the country.

California Governor Gavin Newsom recently generated headlines by changing his stance and initial policies by signing a controversial bill to expand the ability of farm unions to organize. Supporters of the measure say it will help workers build the strong unions needed to obtain the wages and work conditions they want and deserve. Detractors point to the potential for additional labor costs and the continuation of food price inflation – and workers to face pressure from union organizers to join – and risk retaliation of some form because their ballots will no longer be secret.

More than a Political Dispute

California’s 69,000 farms and ranches support about 1.2 million jobs, growing grapes, almonds, dairy products, lettuce, berries, oranges, rice, and other crops. The health of the agricultural sector is vital to the state’s economy – and our nation’s food supply.

In New York, officials have approved a change in regulations that reduce the threshold for overtime from 60 hours to 40 hours for farm workers, phased in over a 10-year period. Progressive organizations champion the move. But farmers say the change may work against worker interests. They note the price pressures that limit their margins and inability to pass higher costs on to a reluctant buyer. New York taxpayers noted that the bill contains a reimbursement clause that will shift at least some of the costs to the state taxpayer.

The Golden State also is pondering an increase in the California minimum wage, from $15.00 an hour to $22.50. Minimum hourly wages vary from state to state, generally between $7.25 to $15.00. But whatever the mandated minimum, higher wages mean higher costs to somebody – and most often, the consumer winds up at the end of the chain. Your Big Mac just got more expensive.

The fundamental argument seems to come down to a simple question…

Who pays?

Will consumers accept higher food costs that may be generated in addressing these complex labor issues? Will taxpayers support the use of tax monies to fund mandated labor conditions? Or have consumers built up a resistance to further price rises? As one California grower pointed out to the media, when the labor cost exceeds what I can get from the market for my crop, I have no choice but to leave it in the field.

Who are ‘Agricultural Workers?’

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) describes farm workers as those who maintain crops and tend livestock, performing physical labor and operating machinery under the supervision of farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers.

BLS estimates the total number of agricultural workers across the country at 876,900 in 2021, roughly 90 percent categorized as crop and animal workers. The remainder is essentially equipment operators, breeding specialists, and various technical experts.

BLS also records another 210,000 workers in the various industries supporting farmers, including truckers, equipment maintenance and repair specialists, supply delivery personnel, and related farm service organizations.

It’s All About People, Not Just Numbers

The cold labor data fails to capture a critical element of the current labor issue. People, not tables and charts and technological innovations, make the modern agricultural system function. Someone has to turn on the switch, after all. And maybe more relevant to the current situation, someone must do the hard, hard physical labor that farming and ranching still entails.

Source for image:

Much of the agricultural world still depends upon people willing to pick and harvest crops, especially the fruit and vegetables essential to a healthy diet. Farmers need help operating the complex equipment that goes into planting, protecting, and nurturing crops, herds, and flocks. They sometimes need special knowledge and skills to operate dairy farms, maintain healthy birds and cattle, or manage complex regenerative cropping systems.

Above all, they need help that is not just available but reliably available. The Covid era ushered in a new attitude among many workforce segments – a simple unwillingness to commit to doing much of the essential farm work that makes the whole system sustainable. Farmers and ranchers increasingly complain not just of the difficulty of recruiting help, but in finding help actually willing to show up, day after day.

Labor interests ask for more – but not just more money, but more control over workplace conditions, family support, job flexibility, time off, and other deeply personal considerations. The recent threat of a major railroad strike brought this new reality home when workers made work-life balance a significant issue in negotiations, far more than the agreed-upon 24% wage increase.

The importance of farm labor has been magnified by another simple change – a smaller and aging cadre of on-farm work.

The average age of a U.S. farmer today is 57.5 years, up more than a full year in the past decade. (Other estimates place the average age of principal farm operators at 59.4.) The large majority of U.S. farms may still be family owned. But fewer of those family members seem interested in staying on the farm and even less inclined to take on sole responsibility for the steady and unrelenting hard labor that farming still demands.

Doesn’t Immigrant Labor Offset This?

Immigrant labor – legal and illegal — has been the primary source of relief for the labor pains felt on the farm and ranch. AgAmerica’s analysis of the labor situation estimated that as much as 73 percent of the U.S. agricultural labor force comprises immigrants, compared with just 13 percent of immigrants in the overall U.S. population.

Covid ushered in a sharp change in international travel, and the normal flow of immigration was not immune to its chilling effects.

Students of the labor issue also note that rising education levels and expanding employment options are diminishing the willingness of immigrants to take on often back-breaking fieldwork.

Government agencies also are anxiously awaiting November’s fiscal-year-end labor report from BLS, both to assess trends in agricultural employment and to examine what, if any, effect the recent wave of immigration at the southern U.S. border may be having on the situation. Border authorities report more than 2 million encounters with people trying to enter the country in the first 11 months of fiscal 2022.

Immigration reform advocates contend that in addition to the 1.3 million immigrants released into the United States, up to another 1 million may have slipped past border authorities. While the exact figures are subject to debate, the influx is significant enough to prompt animated discussion on the need for immigration reform to bring greater order to the integration of a potentially sizeable addition to the agricultural labor force.

Dirt to Dinner will monitor the BLS report due in late November and continue to report on significant insights it may contain.

Is the Produce Industry in a Pickle?

The problem affects almost all segments of modern agriculture. But none seems to face a larger immediate challenge than the world of produce. Physical labor remains absolutely essential to economic survival for fruit and vegetable producers. As recently as 2012, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimated that as much as 20 percent of U.S. produce never left the field due to labor shortages. A 2019 study by Santa Clara University pegged the waste figure at a whopping 33.7 percent, with labor shortages cited as a major factor.

The problem is critical in the western United States, where the produce industry is a massive element of state and national economies. Growers warn that shortages in field labor might mean spot shortages or disruptions to the normal flow of goods to market. In other words, lingering labor issues could contribute to a repeat of some of the supply disruptions seen during the Covid pandemic. Dealing with such labor-driven disruptions is the driving force behind creating the H-2A ‘guest worker” program.

The U.S. Labor Department’s H-2A program began in 1986 to allow producers to bring in temporary workers when domestic workers are unavailable. The program has been a big help to producers – with the total number of these agricultural visas quadrupling since 2007.

NRDC also notes that up to half of all farm workers are undocumented immigrants. State Department data cited by USA Facts notes that while requests for visas into the United States for tourism, schooling, and work declined sharply during Covid, agricultural visa requests actually rose.

As impressive as those numbers may be, farmers and ranchers quickly say the labor problem continues to be a big challenge. The H-2A program comes in for particular criticism for its complex filing processes, long time frames, and general bureaucratic hassles – all anathema to harried farm operators. Few, if any, observers expect progress on the underlying problem of immigration reform at the federal level. Likewise, farm managers and others across the food chain question how the changing attitudes toward work that have emerged in a Covid and post-Covid world will play out among the overall U.S. workforce.

So What are We Doing about the Problem?

In the interim, efforts to deal with the labor issue have taken several directions.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports media pay for farm labor at $14.27 per hour in 2021, or just under $30,000 per year. Equipment operators, breeders, and other specialized skill positions pay a bit more, averaging $36,000-40,000. Analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service shows an 8 percent increase in overall farm labor wages. It’s simple economics: more money stimulates supply, and labor is no different.

  • Further reform of the H-2A program

Legislation to streamline the process and reduce at least some of the most frustrating aspects of its administration are pending in Congress, with broad bipartisan support. But the political thicket remains in full force, with lingering differences of opinion still to be resolved.

  • Accelerated adoption of technology where economically feasible

Innovation in farm-related automation and robotics offers help if not an outright solution. Artificial intelligence, drone technology, and other emerging tools for the farmer and rancher no longer seem so far away or economically out of reach. But ag economists also caution that such investments will be made only if they show a return.

Farmers must feel confident that the additional spending will help the bottom line, not hurt it. Many also point to the risks of becoming too dependent on technology, as called to mind by the recent global shortage of computer chips and growing cyber-security threats from an aggressive international hacker community.

  • Changed farming focus

Perhaps in exasperation or necessity, some farmers report moving away from labor-intensive crops and farming. A few cite the frustrations of modern agriculture – especially on the labor front – as a growing reason to retire early or cease farming altogether. Credible data on the extent of this change remains elusive. But the subject comes up too frequently to be ignored.