Do we need this much food packaging?

Packaging films often come into disrepute, and with some double- and triple-packed foods one really wonders whether this is necessary. So the common perception is: there is too much packaging. Let’s have a deeper look into it: packaging is a cost for the industry, so there is a commercial motivation to keep it to a minimum. The amount of packaging on the vast majority of individual products has gone down over the last years, however consumers now buy far more products so the total amount of packaging used has gone up.

Below we have found some more values of weight savings on individual packages in the last decades. This also underlines that the industry itself is interested in reducing packaging while maintaining or improving performance. In the case of plastics, the weight saved is approx. 30% due to the low density, whereas in the case of glass and metal almost 2/3 of the weight from 1950 could be saved.

packaging reduction examples, source: incpen.org

Many foods today are packed in plastic film. If you look at the total energy used in the food chain, to process food from production to the finished meal at your home, you can divide it into the following categories:

  • production
  • packaging
  • transport
  • shopper (driving to the store, storage, cooking)

The following chart visualizes the amount of energy used for each section of the food chain.

50% of the total energy in the food chain is used for production, source: incpen.org

Combining the two previous charts, one can say that packaging in general was reduced over the years and uses about 10% of the total energy needed to produce food. Still, due to our focus on plastic packaging we often detect some “useless” packaging and ask ourselves why not cutting down on it? Let’s discuss it using an example:

How about cucumbers?

Cucumbers can be found in shops either packed in plastic foil or loose – without foil. As a nature-conscious buyer one would like to think that the cucumber without packaging is not a burden to nature, as there is no plastic waste. Furthermore, cucumbers come “wrapped” by nature, so why packing it into plastic at all?

If you look at the quantity of cucumbers sold in the shops and the entire life cycle of an individual cucumber, there are some reasons for plastic wrapped cucumbers:

To grow cucumbers you need water, around 350 litres per kilogram. Compared to other foods, this value is still relatively low. The water stored in cucumbers also ensures a fresh appearance. Over time, however, the water evaporates. and the cucumber looks increasingly wrinkly and often ends up in the garbage. If this already happens in the shops, then huge quantities of unsold cucumbers end up in the garbage, converted to 350 liters of water / kilogram, this corresponds to an enormous waste of water and energy.

So how does plastic help there? Polyethylene (PE) film is not only a barrier for oxygen, moreover also for water vapour – and that prevents the cucumber losing moisture too fast. There are also bio-based materials such as cellulose / cellophane, which are a good barrier to oxygen, but not to water vapour, and therefore do not offer usable functionality for our cucumber. So, if you want to enjoy a fresh, juicy cucumber and if you want to prevent shops from disposing of large amounts of cucumbers on a daily basis, take the cucumber wrapped in a PE foil. On top of that any packaging is a protective layer preventing people touching vegetables in the supermarket or sneezing on it.

As it often is in life, things need to be put in the right perspective. Here are some numbers (source: incpen.org):

  • Packaging from all sources (industrial, commercial and household) makes less than 3% of litter sent to landfill, measured by weight or volume
  • 60% of packaging from industry and households is recovered and recycled
  • Each household generates 23 kg of litter each week (recyclables and residual waste) of which 4 kg (18%) is packaging
  • Household waste is 9% of all solid litter generated
  • Household packaging litter is therefore less than 2% of all solid waste

Hopefully we were able to give you some new inputs. Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and join the hubbub.

Peter & Herwig

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