Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

Plastic Packaging Yields a Safer, Less Wasteful Food Supply

When my sister set off to volunteer in a poor community in Kenya two years ago, she asked me to donate the last thing I ever expected: plastic T-shirt bags and sandwich bags.  She explained that these products were extremely scarce in many parts of East Africa, and that people needed them to preserve food, keep it clean and protect it from pests.  According to the World Food Programme, Kenya is a “low-income food-deficit country” where 31% of the population is undernourished and violent ethnic clashes combined with high food and fuel prices have left 5.6 million people “food insecure.” 

It dawned on me what a luxury it is for most of us in the United States to enjoy an abundant food supply – not to mention plastic packaging and a complex regulatory framework to ensure its safe use.  When food gets to stores and homes here, plastic plays a key role in keeping it safe from light, oxygen, heat, humidity and microorganisms: the main culprits of spoilage.

From polyvinylidene chloride (commonly known as Saran™ that wraps meats, fruits and vegetables) to high density polyethylene (molded into milk and juice containers) to  polypropylene (most butter/margarine and yogurt containers), plastic food packaging is specially designed to extend the shelf-life of food, change colors if the food is adulterated or spoiled, preserve the quality and nutrient content of food and prevent serious food-borne illnesses like botulism

By preventing food spoilage, plastic packaging not only protects our health but has some eye-opening sustainability benefits as well. According to “Packaging in Perspective,” a 2008 report prepared by the Advisory Committee on Packaging (UK), “Food waste has at least ten times the environmental impact of packaging waste and that’s before taking account of the impact of methane from decayed food.” In other words, when we prevent food spoilage, we grow and ship less food, consume fewer resources and generate fewer emissions.
If not for plastic packaging, more food would spoil and greenhouse gas emissions would increase. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans waste more than 25 percent of the food we prepare, about 96 billion pounds of food waste each year. Sixty billion pounds of this food waste was put in landfills in 2006. Organic waste in landfills emits the greenhouse gas methane.

If not for plastic packaging’s boost to food shelf-life, we’d all be heading to the grocery more often. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, if every household in the U.S. decreased the number of trips  to the grocery each month by one, in a year the amount of energy saved would equal 237 million gallons of gasoline.

Industry invests millions of dollars annually in R&D to come up with new combinations of materials that safely package our food, and scientists and government officials devote careers to assessing the safety of food packaging.  For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Contact Notification Program involves a thorough safety evaluation of all new packaging materials. It also enables U.S. manufacturers to develop new products that better protect food and improve its shelf life.

As we engage in discussions about food packaging and ask questions about its safety for humans and the environment, we must not forget that it is actually designed with the goal of protecting our food supply. Without it we leave ourselves vulnerable to food-borne illness, a reduced food supply and a less sustainable world.

Plug in your zip code at Earth 911 for information on where to recycle plastic packaging in your neck of the woods.


3 Responses to “Plastic Packaging Yields a Safer, Less Wasteful Food Supply”

  1. I am a Kenyan. I’ve read this article and i am surprised. I have been looking for this kind of packaging materials, because for sure we do not have them in Kenya.

    My interest is on how i can trade with the materials as only few people in towns have fridges and for sure this commodity can move if the price is affordable to the locals.

    Kindly revert to me and advice on how i can do this business with you, which will involve importing, and am a humble person looking to do business with you.


  2. Hello,

    Plastic packaging no doubt keeps the food stuff safe for longer time but then it should be biodegradable kind of plastic for using it.


  3. Abraham —

    Thanks for your comment. Many consumers wonder why bioplastics can’t be used for everything and be a replacement for all other types of plastic. That is not currently possible. We need a range of different kinds of plastics for all of the different things we ask them to do for us. Some are better for certain applications than others. For example, PET has barrier properties that are good for the retention of pressurized carbon dioxide (CO2) — the fizz and bubbles of carbonated beverages. We are not aware of any bioplastics on the market that can retain CO2.