With increasing environmental awareness, consumers become more and more aware of the issue of sustainability in food packaging. According to the Emmen MacArthur Foundation, globally only 14% of all plastic packaging is recycled, and 40% of all plastic packaging is disposed on landfills. One third finally ends up in ecosystems, most of it in the ocean.
It is clear, that packaging in the food industry has to become more sustainable. This not simply includes the material which the packaging is made of, but it requires a look into the whole supply chain. To understand what sustainable packaging really is and to reduce its environmental footprint and biological impact, one has to take many different aspects into consideration: used materials, energy efficiency and water use in production, recycled content are just a few.
A solution that might seem too simple, is just less packaging. No packaging at all is, in any case, the most sustainable solution, but the majority of food products have to be packed, be it because of hygiene or simply to add shelf life and reduce wastage. But with every reduction of packaging, the environmental impact will be reduced as well. Less packaging means fewer raw materials are being used, and in the end, less waste ends up on landfills or in the ocean.
Another trend is packaging materials called bioplastics or degradable plastics. What sounds like a perfect solution at a first glance, plastic that is compostable, and just disappears a few months after disposal, is not as perfect as it might seem. Let’s have a closer look at the different types of those materials:
Bioplastics made from natural materials such as corn starch
The good thing about these: they are generally compostable and can break down in a couple of weeks. They consist of the bioplastic polylactic acid (PLA) which is based on corn starch, and so do not produce a net increase in CO2 when they break down.
The negative side of bioplastics: not all of them will completely break down and might leave microplastics behind. And many will only decompose at high temperatures, and not in garden composts or oceans. Biodegradable plastics
Those are made of normal plastic, but just contain certain additives, that make them break down more easily. So that means, they don’t disappear, but might leave behind tiny microplastics, that are especially harmful to animals living in the ocean. Another issue is, that they require a hot temperature to decompose, and the water in oceans is most of the times too cold to break them down.
Those kinds of plastics are made from recycled plastics materials rather than raw materials. But what sounds really smart and sustainable first, is not that good after a closer look. Of course, it is good and right to reuse and recycle as much as possible, but there are some problems with recycled plastics. Usually, it is not possible to make the same items out of plastic again. Also, recycled plastics are not automatically better for the environment. To be sure, you need to do a Life Cycle Assessment and calculate the net saving of energy and water, and a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Cardboard, glass and other alternative packaging materials
Glass and metal are certainly two of the options to consider sustainable, even though the production might have negative impacts on the environment, both of them can be reused and recycled infinitely.
Cardboard and paper are two of the most recycled materials one can find. But producing paper has a huge carbon footprint and very high water usage. Sometimes it is hard to track where cardboard comes from, as it is not recycled, it contributes to deforestation. If using these materials, make sure they have a high recycled content.
Edible packaging: Scientists already have developed an edible, biodegradable packaging film that can be wrapped around food to prevent spoilage.
Bamboo is a very fast-growing plant and can be harvested in just three to seven years. It is highly renewable, and, of course, natural. That means Bamboo decomposes completely and does not leave any toxic residues behind. It also is extremely durable, and it can be grown organically and under very dry conditions.
The most sustainable solution
Now, the probably most sustainable solution is to buy food in so-called zero waste shops. Those shops offer food products only on reusable packaging like glass jars. Usually, customers can bring their own storage container and fill it up with products like pasta, rice or cornflakes. Some things have to be stored, that’s clear. Glass, metal, cardboard, and bamboo, if from sustainable sources and recycled or reused, are an option that you can use in good conscience.