Plastic packaging has indisputably revolutionized our global food system, keeping foods safe as it moves across the globe with fewer transport needs and less fuel. But it comes at a price: plastic waste is washing up on shores, mucking up recycling, and piling up in landfills or incinerators. Is there hope for this material? Or should we put our trust in up-and-coming green materials that have the potential to replace plastics?
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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.
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.
The bottom line
Disruptive technologies in the green packaging space have the potential to replace many of the plastics that mangle our fragile recycling system. Plastic will continue to have a place in the food packaging sector, but hopefully less and less of a share as these durable green materials prove their worth.