March 3, 2023

Could Minimal Food Packaging Save Our Planet?

With 2023 firmly underway, it’s only natural that people are looking ahead and thinking about what is to come. Climate change is at the forefront of many minds, and it’s arguably most relevant in the food industry (where a quarter of global emissions originate). As a member of the food and hospitality industry, we at HyTable have a role to play in caring for our planet and reducing the impact we have… but is the world doing enough to reduce food packaging, and thus its impact on the world?

Does Normal Food Packaging Impact Our World?

The impact of food packing on the environment is sizable. While single-use plastic packaging is obviously the most harmful, all forms of packaging have some kind of toll on the world. The materials have to be gathered and processed, and if they cannot break down easily or they leave microplastics behind, then their impact increases. Even biodegradable food packaging releases emissions as it breaks down (as does food).

Every year, millions of tons of food packaging goes to landfill. This is partly why the food industry contributes to around 26% of global emissions. This directly contributes to air and water pollution, releasing harmful greenhouse gases. With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why some people feel that simply doing away with packaging may be the best approach.

Do We Really Need Food Packaging?

While food packaging comes with some problems and negatives, there are also benefits. Likewise, in many cases, there is a degree of necessity for food packaging.

The most obvious case is with raw animal products, such as meat or yogurt. Here, the packaging protects food – and our bodies – from harmful bacteria that forms and causes food to rot. Likewise, packaging bread and other perishable items will increase their shelf-life, which directly prevents an increase in food waste.

Of course, there are other foods which don’t truly need to be packaged. For example, most fresh fruits and vegetables do not require plastic packaging to stay fresh and edible. In some cases, packaging can increase their freshness, but in most, it is about convenience for the consumer.

As you can see, the issue is complex. Food packaging cannot simply be done away with. This means that we must find ways to make packaging more sustainable, so that when it’s genuinely necessary for safety, it still reduces non-necessary packing.

Current Plastic Packaging Alternatives

There are a number of more eco-friendly packaging options on the market right now, but they are not all as effective as plastic when it comes to protecting perishable items like meat. The most common alternatives right now are:

  • Compostable paper wrapping (also called parchment paper)
  • Recyclable, coated, greaseproof paper (also called butcher paper)
  • Paper sandwich bags
  • Recycled and recyclable paper takeout bags

There are also sustainable options for storing food at home. For example, food wraps made of cloth and coated with beeswax will create an airtight seal.

There is still work to do, however, and there are many bright minds working on solutions to the issue of food packaging.

How Packaging Could Become More Sustainable

Using several methods, the food industry could make itself more sustainable. The most obvious is to reduce its reliance on single-use plastics as a whole. Removing unnecessary packing will also make a big difference.

For example, in the U.S., 45% of landfill materials come from food packaging. While some of this is necessary for safety and hygiene, not all of it is. If even 1/5th of food packaging is unnecessary, then removing it from circulation in the U.S. alone would positively impact our world.

Moving to recycled and recyclable packaging can also lessen the ecological impact of the food industry, but many experts say this is not enough.

With a pressing need to reach carbon net zero and prevent microplastics from entering the ocean, leading minds and everyday people alike are exploring sustainable plastic alternatives that are kinder to the environment – both during creation and after use.

Looking To The Future: Recent Innovations

While it’s easy to feel downcast when we examine the state of the world right now, there are many innovations ready to bear fruit. For example, a new product has been designed by researchers in Flinders University, Australia, who have entered a partnership with a German biomaterials developer to create a plastic alternative with a much lower carbon footprint.

Their star material? Seaweed.

Seaweed, as a plant, is a matter of interest in many areas of the food industry right now. Professor Patricia Harvey at the University of Greenwich has been pioneering Ocean Flexitarianism. This encourages eating food from the lower levels of the sea, such as seaweed, algae, and less common crustaceans. This is designed to combat the inevitable food shortages that will occur if the population continues to boom.

The study undertaken at Flinders University is similar, because it focuses on using seaweed as a fast growing, sustainable resource. However, the end goal is to create an alternative to plastic that performs just as well.

Some instances of this technology currently in circulation include biodegradable bags made from a film created with seaweed. These bags are made by companies like Sway and can break down in as little as six weeks. Better yet, seaweed can purify the ocean by combatting growing ocean acidity. This will contribute toward protecting the fragile ocean ecosystem, which is crucial to all life on earth.

What Can We Do To Reduce Plastic Waste?

While we, as consumers, have to wait for companies to innovate before our sustainable choices become more varied, there are steps we can take right now to limit our personal plastic waste total. These simple approaches will make a difference to your household and beyond:

  • Buy reusable produce bags
  • Opt for loose fruit and vegetables as often as possible.
  • Choose foods packed with recyclable materials as often as possible.
  • Buy locally produced food as often as you can.
  • Consider buying from zero-packaging stores (where you can buy dried goods to fill containers you bring).

These principles can be applied to most forms of consumer goods; for example, by using stick-deodorant that you can refill when you need to.

In the end, simply redesigning the most common food packaging will not save the world. However, taking steps to reduce the plastics you use personally does have an impact on your local area. If enough people begin to avoid single-use plastic as a matter of habit, food manufacturers will be prompted to move away from it too. Small steps really can change the world!