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How Plastic Packaging Helps Reduce Food Waste

In my last blog, I focused on the first of the three R’s…Reduce (reduce, reuse, recycle). It is where the biggest impact can be made. With each day that passes, I grow more concerned for all the single-use waste I see being generated during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am saddened by the loss of life, the toll the virus is taking on the global economy, mental health, and the amount of incremental waste being generated. I get it. Safety first! And, as a result, plastic packaging has become even more essential to product safety and quality.  

The positive role plastic packaging plays in the reduction of food waste

As an executive of a single-use plastic container manufacturer, I will be the first to acknowledge end-of-life scenarios for some plastic packaging are problematic. It is depressing, really. I must often remind myself of the essential benefits plastic packaging play – product safety, quality, extended shelf life and communication of ingredient and nutritional information. And plastic food packaging is one of the most environmentally and economically sound solutions to the problem of food waste.

Let’s take a quick look at why we need to be concerned about food waste and work to reduce it. Then we will come back to the end-of-life challenges we face with plastic packaging. According to ReFED, 63 million tons of food is wasted/discarded annually in the United States, and 85% of this waste occurs far downstream at consumer-facing businesses and homes. Reducing food waste, at the consumer level, is critical because of all the resources that are consumed to bring food to you (water, energy, fertilizer, land, transportation, etc.). Statistics shared by ReFED state that food waste consumes 21% of all fresh water, 18% of croplands, and occupies 21% of landfill volume.

Packaging plays a critical role in efforts to reduce food waste, and while plastics are not the only material suitable for packaging food, plastic food packaging remains one of the best solutions. A 2016 Trucost¹ study (conducted in association with the American Chemistry Council) determined that replacing plastic with alternative packaging materials (glass, aluminum, paper, etc.) would increase environmental costs by almost $400 billion. Additionally, alternative materials, by weight, require four times as much material to perform the same function. Then there are Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions to consider. In a report published by Ameripen, it was noted the GHG emissions associated with typical food products (beef, poultry, cheese, etc.) were 20 – 400 times that of the plastic required to package them²; thus, making the lighter weight of plastics a compelling and sustainable packaging choice.

Tackling end-of-life challenges

Now, let’s consider food waste within the context of Lean principles. As mentioned in my earlier blog “Recycling – What an Attention Hog!”, lean principles are obsessed with the elimination of waste: Defects, Over-Production, Waiting, Non-Utilized Talent, Transportation, Inventory, Motion, and Extra-Processing. If we think in these terms, reducing food waste is where it’s at…a travesty for sure! When we throw food away, we need to remember that we throw away all the water, feed, processing energy, transportation, and refrigeration used to bring that food from farm to table.

If we can all agree that food waste is a societal issue that we should all work to reduce and are willing to accept the positive role plastic packaging can play in these efforts, we are still left with the end-of-life challenges plastic food packaging presents.  This issue begins with a collective failure to recover and recycle the material. There is nothing lean about the chain of events that occur after you put plastic into a recycling bin. And I’m afraid I don’t have any easy solutions to offer. I can only share the challenges and ask that we all work together, across the entire value chain, to find lean solutions.

One of the most basic challenges is the low economic value plastics have in the recycle stream unless the material is…
  • clean (i.e. has no food residue on it)
  • comprised of a single type of plastic ((e.g. HDPE milk jugs and, noting, that if the label is a different material, it can cause the container to not be able to be recycled)
  • sortable (the ability for the material to be sorted relies on the size of package and how up-to-date the sortation equipment is at your local reclamation center)

  • A call to action

    How many of you are taking the time to wash the food residue off your plastic packaging before you put it in that blue bin? How many of you are aware that a corrugated pizza box or a paper fiber take-out container cannot normally be recycled? That’s right. If it has food residue, it will end up in the landfill. And, how many of you put those items in the blue bin somehow thinking that maybe someone will take it into the recycling stream anyway? This is called “aspirational recycling” and it is counterproductive to the cause.

    It is incredibly important we understand what can and cannot go into those blue bins. Please do your part by taking the time to fully understand what your municipality actually recycles…and stop practicing “aspirational” recycling. Do a little audit of what your neighbors are putting in their blue bins. Get educated and then take the time to educate your neighbors, family, friends, and colleagues. In doing so, you are doing your part to clean up recycling streams and help them operate in a more lean and efficient manner. This means…
    • less transportation of non-recyclable materials
    • less energy and labor needlessly sorting materials that just end up in a landfill
    • an improved quality of recycled materials become available. This will, in turn, increase the value of these materials and will lead to further effort to reclaim the material (e.g. more up-to-date sortation equipment)
    • more usable, high-quality recyclable material that becomes available, the greater the demand there will be for recycled plastic material
    By doing the above, regardless of material, you will help improve the recycle streams. At the same time, be assured that companies throughout the packaging value chain, including those of us here at Winpak, are creating packaging innovations and investing in recycle infrastructure to help make recycling lean and help foster the creation of a Circular Economy for plastics.

    ¹ - Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement, July 2016
    ² - Quantifying the Value of Packaging as a Strategy to Prevent Food Waste in America, January 2018
Greg Powell
Greg Powell
President, Winpak Portion Packaging & Equipment Solutions
Sauk Village, IL United States

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