The environmental impact of food packaging
The content of this article 'The environmental impact of food packaging' was prepared by FoodPrint and has been revised and republished by FreshFruitPortal.com.
Modern food packaging provides a way to make food safe, reliable, shelf-stable and clean, however, some food packaging is designed to be single-use and is not recycled.
Instead, the packaging is thrown away and often litters waterways and because so much food packaging (especially plastic) has ended up in waterways, the United Nations has declared the plastic pollution of oceans “a planetary crisis".
This is a problem not only for humanity but for all aquatic life and there are other environmental impacts from food packaging as well, including to our air and soil.
While it may be hard to find unpackaged food, opportunities to choose packaging that is less damaging to the environment do exist.
Food packaging materials and uses
Modern food packaging is made from a variety of manufactured and synthetic materials, including ceramics, glass, metal, paper, paperboard, cardboard, wax, wood and, more and more, plastics.
Most food packaging is made of paper and paperboard, rigid plastic and glass.
While some newer plastics are made from corn and other plant matter, most are made from petroleum and include additives like polymers.
In addition, many types of packaging contain coatings and most packaging comes labeled with text using printer’s inks; paperboards are often lined with plastic that is not visible.
Types of food packaging
The type of packaging used depends on several factors, such as where the food is purchased, the intended use of the packaging and the timeline for consuming the product. For example:
- Grocery store food is typically sold in glass, metal, plastic or paperboard containers, and often comes encased in multiple layers. Those containers are then placed into plastic or paper grocery bags.
- Processed food often has multiple layers of packaging; for example, a food item might be placed in a tray, covered in paper or plastic wrap, placed into a paperboard box and then, often, covered again in plastic wrap.
- Many food items that were traditionally found in glass, metal or plastic bottles or cans are now found in multilayer plastic-coated pouches or cartons.
Current food production and consumption practices generate a lot of packaging, and new forms of packaging are constantly being developed.
The packaging of food places the largest demand on the industry, with approximately two-thirds of all the material produced going to package food.
Unfortunately, most packaging is designed as single-use and is typically thrown away rather than reused or recycled.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food and food packaging materials make up almost half of all municipal solid waste.
The trouble with food packaging
The trouble with food packaging begins at its creation. Each form uses a lot of resources like energy, water, chemicals, petroleum, minerals, wood and fibers to produce.
Its manufacture often generates air emissions including greenhouse gases, heavy metals and particulates, as well as wastewater and/or sludge containing toxic contaminants.
Paper or paperboard manufacturing
The paper and paperboard industry uses wood that is milled into pulp using either mechanical or chemical processes and the manufacturing process can create air and water emissions.
Mills use a lot of energy and water; in the past, this produced large volumes of toxic wastewater. Primary air emissions include carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and particulates.
In the US, the major source of feedstocks for plastics production is natural gas, derived either from natural gas processing or from crude oil refining.
There are seven types of plastics polymers that account for 70 percent of all plastics production, including polypropylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene terephthalate and polyethylene, all of which are derived from fossil fuels and are used in food packaging.
Plastics manufacturing is responsible for a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the US — as much as one percent. Other air emissions from plastics production include nitrous oxides, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride.
Water and land pollution from food packaging
After it is used, most packaging is discarded and is either buried in a landfill or becomes litter that is carried along by wind and water currents into the environment.
Packaging sent to landfills, especially when made from plastics, does not degrade quickly or, in some cases, at all, and chemicals from the packaging materials, including inks and dyes from labeling, can leach into groundwater and soil.
Litter — especially of the plastic variety — often makes its way to the furthest reaches of the planet, where it threatens human, avian and marine life. In the oceans, the problem has become so acute that the United Nations chief of oceans has declared plastic pollution of our oceans a “planetary crisis.”
The severe impacts of plastic on the environment are not limited to ocean pollution, however, one study estimated that one-third of all discarded plastic ends up in the soil or in freshwater.
Some scientists believe that microplastic (plastics less than five millimeters) pollution in soils around the world is an even more severe problem than microplastic plastic pollution in our oceans — an estimated four to 23 times more severe, depending on the environment. Microplastics in soil have a number of detrimental effects, including impacting the behavior of soil fauna like earthworms and carrying disease.
Once in the soil and waterways, degrading plastics absorb toxic chemicals like PCBs and pesticides.
Some food packaging materials degrade relatively quickly; others will take hundreds to even a million years to degrade. The National Park Service has estimated degradation times of selected food packaging materials, as follows: