If you read the paper, watch the news or scroll through any news media site or social media platform, chances are you’ve seen something about the plastic waste crisis.
Our industry is responding and is deeply engaged in unprecedented action to help end plastic waste in the environment and create a more circular economy for plastics. We agree that plastic waste is unacceptable and that the benefits of plastic packaging can be forgotten when it ends up in the marine environment or is improperly deposited on land.
The stakes are high. Plastics are critical to modern society and solving critical problems like food waste. Ultimately, we believe these challenges, while significant, are solvable with the right commitments.
“At present, around 70% of survey respondents consider packaging waste to be a greater environmental issue than food waste, although facts show the opposite.”
Food Waste Impacts the Environment
The recent Denkstatt study, “Food Packaging Sustainability: A Guide for Packaging Manufacturers, Food Processors, Retailers, Political Institutions & NGOs,” illustrates why it is so important that we’re able to focus on solving the challenge of ending plastic waste, while remembering why we use plastics for food packaging in the first place.
According to the study, approximately 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions are related to food. One-third of all food produced is lost. Avoiding food waste can reduce our overall carbon footprint by up to 8%. Due to its protective function, packaging often helps to reduce food waste. The study goes on to state that the environmental benefit of avoided waste is usually 5 to 10 times higher than the environmental cost of the packaging. Product protection pays off especially for food products with resource-intensive production like meat and cheese.
Lightweight Plastics Protect Food With Less Impact On The Environment
Plastic packaging is key to helping prevent food waste. Not only does plastic packaging provide environmental benefits due to its lightweight properties, but it also helps extend shelf life because of innovative design.
The study, “Life Cycle Impacts of Plastic Packaging Compared to Substitutes In the United States and Canada: Theoretical Substitution Analysis,” finds that replacing lightweight plastics with alternative, heavier materials in packaging applications would cause increases in energy use, water consumption, and solid waste, as well as increase greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), acidification, eutrophication, and ozone depletion.
Trucost’s study of the environmental costs of plastics vs. other materials went further and looked at plastics’ role in food storage, preservation and waste, even when comparing older plastic packaging formats to newer innovations. For example, the researchers concluded that improving skin-type plastic packaging for sirloin steak could cut food waste almost in half compared to conventional plastic packaging, according to the study, going from 34 percent packaging waste to 18 percent with environmental savings of $606 per metric ton of beef sirloin sold.
“There is a simple, yet profound scientific explanation as to why plastics perform so well. At the same cost and functionality, plastics’ barrier and other critical performance properties outperform other materials with respect to preservation,” says Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director for Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics. “Plastics have a higher strength-to-weight ratio than many other materials, and thus a greater carrying capacity for a given package weight. You package more product with less material compared to other materials. That reduces material usage, as well as energy consumption throughout the supply, distribution and value chain.”
In other words, the very nature of plastics packaging makes them an important material to help achieve more holistic sustainability.
What We’re Doing to Combat Plastic Waste
Our industry knows that the benefits of plastics can be forgotten as long as plastic waste is in the environment. That’s why we’re working to enhance plastics’ environmental performance after use by increasing recycling and recovery while supporting efforts to prevent litter.
In 2018, America’s plastic makers established a goal of making all plastic packaging in the United States reusable, recyclable or recoverable by 2030 and for all plastic packaging to be reused, recycled, or recovered by 2040. A collaborative effort— involving government, industry, recyclers, and other stakeholders—will be critical to achieving these goals.
There is much work to do to achieve our goals and eliminate plastic waste. But the data combined with the investments and recovery progress show that making the best decisions to help prevent food waste doesn’t have to be an environmental trade-off.