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The whole package: Is 'sustainable packaging' another buzzword, or can it actually cut waste?

food packaging of fruit
Shutterstock Trong Nguyen

With food traveling an average of 4,200 miles from farm to consumer, it is no surprise that retailers and food processors are concerned with protecting the freshness of food as it travels.

As the food supply chain grows in complexity, we have a responsibility to make sure we are prepared by 2050 to feed a population of nearly 10 billion within environmental limits. When one-third of food produced globally is lost or wasted each year, it is critical that we work together to protect this precious resource and ensure it is delivered safely.

Plastics serve an incredibly important purpose — ensuring that our food reaches you safely. Eliminating all plastic food packaging would lead to a massive uptick in food waste. The global effect of processing wasted food equals about 3.3 billion tons of CO2 (PDF). For example, the carbon footprint of 1 kg of beef is nearly 400 times that of the plastic packaging used to protect it during distribution and retail sale.

But the pressure to reduce plastic waste is increasingly felt across our food system. While consumers, governments and many business leaders in the industry recognize the need for this type of essential packaging, they are also looking for more sustainable alternatives that could improve our food system. And recent scientific and technological advances are presenting more viable options when it comes to environmentally friendly plant-based packaging.

The science behind sustainable packaging

Consumer demand for sustainable packaging has risen along with concerns about the environment. More than half of consumers today say that the recyclability, sustainability and biodegradability of packaging factor into their purchasing decisions.

But packaging is more complex than most consumers think, and most people don’t really understand the differences between these various categories of packaging. That confusion can be at least partially attributed to industry greenwashing — deceptive claims of being eco-friendly — a practice that the Federal Trade Commission is taking steps to counteract by standardizing those terms.

Renewable, recyclable and biodegradable packaging all fall under the umbrella term of sustainable packaging, which is designed to reduce the environmental impact and ecological footprint. Recyclable packaging is probably the most familiar way to do that, but many do not truly understand where their recyclable plastic packaging actually goes and how it is recycled into a form that can be used again. With more than 19,492 municipalities in the United States alone, the issue of recyclability can be confusing and complex. Food packaging often involves a variety of materials in a variety of shapes and formats. Today, most plastic recycling is focused on bottles or rigid containers.

Renewable packaging is produced from renewable ingredients such as fiber, starch or sugar cane. Biodegradable packaging is organic material that can be broken down into carbon dioxide, water and other simple organic molecules within a couple of months.

While most industry experts try to determine which of these categories consumers favor or which will have the least environmental impact, the truth is that it is not a simple either/or situation here. We should remain wary of simple solutions to the sustainability of food packaging.

Securing our food supply and protecting this resource as it moves requires a careful focus on food science to extend the shelf life of food, high performing sustainable materials including recyclable and plant-based packaging.

Companies such as Coca-Cola are innovating in the plant-based space fast. In 2009, The Coca-Cola Company introduced PlantBottle packaging, replacing traditional fossil-based ingredients used to make PET plastics with renewable materials made from plants. Originally made from 30 percent plant-based materials in 2009, Coca-Cola unveiled 100 percent PlantBottle in 2015, the first prototype PET bottle made solely of plant-based materials. Last year, 29 percent of Coca-Cola beverages in North America and 8 percent globally were bottled with PlantBottle. These renewable bio-based bottles are part of the company’s initiative to replace all petroleum-based plastic bottles by 2020. Solutions such as PlantBottle trigger a larger industry shift towards a culture of environmental stewardship.

Ensuring freshness

Without a doubt, food companies are challenged in a very different way from companies focused on fast moving consumer products. Meat, produce and dairy products are highly perishable and need high-performance packaging that ensures the safety, attractiveness and freshness of these products.

Until recently, plant-based packaging couldn’t compete with traditional plastics with regards to food shelf life and costs. But now, new innovative packaging materials derived from plants are catching up and bridging the gap between consumer demand and business practicality.

That’s why Sealed Air recently has entered into a new cooperation with Kuraray America to offer its Plantic plant-based resins to package perishable foods such as poultry, beef and seafood in the United States, Canada and Mexico. This material has demonstrated no performative difference compared with other traditional food packaging materials in the supply chain. This agreement has expanded our portfolio of sustainable solutions, enabling us to offer a plant-based packaging option that offers product freshness, shelf life and environmental savings for processors and retailers.

The latest innovative plant-based packaging is not only cost-competitive with traditional materials, but also doesn’t compromise the shelf life or freshness of food products. Without a doubt, there are long-term benefits of switching to plant-based plastics.

Not 'one size fits all'

As food processors continue to make the transition to plant-based packaging, they need to explore all their options because it’s a not a "one-size-fits-all" approach. Different plant-based packaging options are designed for different applications, and packaging industry researchers are continuously developing new materials for more applications.

Other plant-based materials, such as polylactic acid (PLA), can be used for applications such as strawberry clamshells, salad bowls and cups. However, these other materials have several shortcomings for flexible packaging applications that require protection of food shelf life. The Plantic material is well suited to protect red meat, poultry and fish, and has exceptional oxygen and carbon dioxide barrier properties.

U.S. grocery chains such as Wegman’s already have adopted plant-based Plantic packaging for their range of organic beef products. Using plant-based packaging has allowed the supermarket chain to appeal to environmentally conscious customers.

As we innovate and adopt plant-based packaging and other technologies to protect our food supply, we must not lose sight of educating consumers and governments about these efforts and the balancing act in protecting food from spoilage to reduce food waste and reducing packaging waste today and tomorrow.

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