Packaging rarely gets the credit it deserves in the court of public opinion for all the wonderful things it does to help people go about their daily lives in relative comfort and safety. Taken for granted at best and scorned as a necessary evil at worst, packaging is the first thing to get the blame whenever consumers have a hard time opening a product package or the milk in the fridge turns sour just before this morning’s coffee.
And while most right-thinking people would agree that a world without modern consumer packaging would be a pretty grim place, bashing packaging as a major contributor to some of the word’s gravest ecological and societal challenges seems to have become a brave new pastime among the millennial generation empowered by social media and general disdain for anything pre-Internet in general as, well, just being so 20th Century, dear God!
But that’s no reason for the packaging industry to stop striving to develop better, more effective and more engaging packaging formats that will ultimately help change the public’s largely cynical take on its contribution to the greater societal good, despite a plethora of existing credible evidence to the contrary. It would also do the industry well to take a more active role in educating the public on the multitude of practical benefits that a well-designed package inherently brings to their daily existence—especially when it comes to food packaging.
While enhancing product protection and shelf-life is the obvious no-brainer, there are many other reasons why, according to the industry’s conservative estimates, the food product waste that this packaging prevents from taking place is at least 10 times greater than the waste it creates.
This mighty multiplier effect has profound significance for Canada and the U.S., with consumers in both countries estimated to throw away about 40 per cent of all the food produced there each year—translating into about $27 billion in Canada and some US$162 billion south of the border, or six million and 35 million tonnes respectively.
So how can packaging be used to cut that waste down in a meaningful way?
According to a recent position paper from AMERIPEN (American Institute for Packaging and the Environment), packaging can be effectively used to reduce this staggering mountain of food waste by:
- Maintaining longer freshness, nutritional value and safety. Rather than acting as mere oxygen barriers, “The latest packaging innovations even include technologies that prevent or reduce contaminants—increasing shelf-life and product safety, while maintaining nutritional value,” the study points out.
- Providing critical storage and usage information, thereby increasing the amount of food that is actually consumed, rather than thrown away due to spoilage.
- Delivering effective portion control. “Individually-wrapped chicken breasts, squeezable yogurt tubes, and cheese sticks are much more than conveniences,” according to the study. “They ensure that the portions not eaten remain fresh and protected, ready for use at a later date [and] they help you from inadvertently serving to your family more than they can finish.”
- Providing more pre-cut and pre-washed food options. Bagged pre-cut carrots and celery, jarred sauerkraut and canned artichokes reduce waste by “delivering only the parts of these products that can be eaten,” without all the stems, peels, husks and stalks that have to be disposed of. Instead, all these ‘edibles” can be composted by farmers and food processors before packaging to create natural fertilizer and soil condition right where they’re needed in the field.
Says AMERIPEN’s executive director Donna Dempsey: “To most people, the fact that packaging plays a very positive role in our efforts to reduce food waste is counterintuitive, as they usually think about a package when it comes time to put it in the recycling or trash bin.
“What they don’t realize is how that little bit of packaging saves a significant amount of food, along with the related economic and environmental resources from being thrown away.”
One way or another, it’s time for everyone to start doing their part to help make that realization sink in where it really counts.