Why Is There So Much Plastic Food Packaging?

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Why Is There So Much Plastic Food Packaging?


Although it seems as if almost every cucumber, apple and pepper in the vegetable aisle is surrounded by plastic, it is true.

What began with cellophane in the 1930s took off with the advent of plastic clam shells in the 1980s and packaged salads in the 1990s. Online grocery shopping has accelerated it.

But now it’s about what the people who grow and sell fruit and vegetables say is a direct hit: breaking plastic’s stranglehold over the produce.

In a March survey of fruit and vegetable experts on LinkedIn, switching to biodegradable materials was named the top trend. “It’s big,” said Soren Bjorn, chief executive of Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry producer, which has switched to paper containers in many European markets.

Spain has a plastic tax. France has sharply restricted products packaged in plastic and the European Union is in the process of introducing its own restrictions. Canada is trying to develop a plan that could eliminate plastic food packaging by 95 percent by 2028. In the United States, eleven states have already implemented restrictions on plastic packaging. As part of a comprehensive anti-waste plan, the Biden administration is calling for new food packaging methods that use climate-friendly, antimicrobial materials to reduce reliance on plastic.

Reducing plastic consumption is an obvious way to counteract climate change. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, which are the largest contributor to greenhouse gases. It clogs the oceans and enters the food chain. Estimates vary, but around 40 percent of plastic waste comes from packaging.

But plastic has been the most effective way to combat another environmental threat: food waste.

Wirecutter shares tips for keeping your produce fresh for weeks.

Selling products is like picking up a melting ice cube and asking how much someone will pay for it. Time is of the essence, and plastic slows down the decay of vegetables and fruits. That means fewer products are thrown into the trash, where they account for nearly 60 percent of landfill methane emissions, according to a 2023 Environmental Protection Agency report.

A 2021 Swiss study showed that every rotting cucumber thrown away has the same environmental impact as 93 plastic cucumber packages.

Food is the most common material in landfills. The average American family of four spends $1,500 each year on food that ends up not being eaten. According to a study by Michigan State University, fruits and vegetables make up almost half of all household food waste. And it’s not just wasted food that contributes to climate change. The waste of agriculture and transportation to produce discarded food also impacts the climate.

Preventing food waste and reducing plastic consumption are not mutually exclusive goals. Both are high on the agenda of the Biden administration, which in December released a draft national strategy to halve the country’s food losses by 2030.

Consumers are increasingly reporting that it is important to them to use less plastic and packaging, but their shopping habits tell a different story. According to the International Fresh Produce Association, American shoppers purchased $4.3 billion worth of packaged lettuce last year. Both marketing experiments and independent research show that price, quality and convenience determine food choices more than environmental concerns.

Grocers also have to make difficult decisions. Shoppers have complained about having to buy products that are already packaged and priced in plastic. It’s easier for the store not to sell by weight because employees don’t have to weigh every item. But it often forces buyers to buy more than they need.

It seems like the line is being drawn between the crowd that never opts for plastic and the shoppers who prefer having fresh salads delivered to their convenience at home.

“The packaging debate is being held hostage by one side or the other,” said Max Teplitski, scientific director of the International Fresh Produce Association. He leads the Alliance for Sustainable Packaging for Foods, a group of industry trade groups that formed in January.

The group’s priority is to ensure that any changes to packaging ensure food safety and preserve its quality.

Here are a few new ideas for the grocery shelf:

Pockets of trees. An Austrian company is using beech wood to make biodegradable cellulose mesh bags for storing food. Other companies offer similar nets that decompose within a few weeks.

Film from shells. Orange peels, shrimp shells and other natural waste are made into films that can be used like cellophane or made into bags. An edible coating of plant-based fatty acids is sprayed on cucumbers, avocados, and other produce sold in many major grocery stores. They work similarly to the wax coating commonly used on citrus fruits and apples.

Cardboard mussel shells. Plastic clam shells are a $9.1 billion business in the United States, and the number of producers who use them is huge. Replacing them will be an enormous challenge, especially for more delicate fruits and vegetables. Many designers try it. Driscoll’s has worked to develop paper containers for use in the United States and Canada. The company is now using more recycled plastic for its mussel shells in the USA.

Ice cream that feels like gelatin. Luxin Wang and other scientists at the University of California, Davis, have invented reusable jelly ice cream. It is lighter than ice and does not melt. This could eliminate the need for plastic ice packs, which cannot be recycled. After about a dozen uses, the jelly ice cream can be thrown into the garden or trash where it will dissolve.

Boxing with atmosphere. Broccoli is usually shipped in wax-coated boxes filled with ice. The soggy boxes cannot be recycled. Ice-free broccoli shipping containers use a gas mixture that helps preserve the vegetable, rather than cooling it with ice, which is difficult to transport and can transmit pathogens when melted. Other sustainable, lighter shipping boxes are designed to remove ethylene, a plant hormone that promotes ripening.

Containers made from plants. Post-harvest leftover rice straw, grasses, sugarcane stalks and even food waste are converted into trays and boxes that are either biodegradable or can be composted.

Barely. Even if every producer and grocer started using packaging that could be recycled or composted, America’s infrastructure for turning it into something other than trash is patchy at best. Less than 10 percent of all plastic is recycled, a figure that is even lower for food packaging, said Eva Almenar, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Packaging. Only a small proportion of packaging labeled as compostable does not end up in landfill.

Only 3 percent of wasted food ends up in industrial composting centers. In several states, there are no commercial operations that can compost food waste.

“We don’t have the right technology and collection systems,” said Dr. Almenar.

Even if the infrastructure were there, people’s habits are not there. “Consumers have no idea what eco-friendly, compostable or recyclable means,” she said.

Virtually no one has yet developed an affordable plastic alternative that can be recycled or composted and also keeps fruits and vegetables safe and fresh. Plastic allows packagers to alter the gas mix in a package to extend the shelf life and quality of fresh products.

“The downside you get is that if you ditch plastic and switch to fiber, the shelf life goes down very quickly,” said Scott Crawford, vice president of merchandising at Baldor Specialty Foods and a veteran of Whole Foods Market and Fresh Direct. “The question is, which side of the balloon are you trying to squeeze?”

The ideal solution, he said, would be to return to the plastic-free days, when grocers stacked produce by hand and no one demanded that seasonal fruits like blueberries be available year-round.

“I don’t think we’ll see that happen again,” he said.

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2024-04-02 09:02:12

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