Fresh Food Packaging Sustainability: No Time to Waste

Reducing environmental footprint and limiting food wastage are inextricably linked

By Eldon Schaffer is CEO of TekniPlex Consumer Products

As leaders in the materials science business, we are well aware of the myriad of discussions surrounding sustainable packaging in the fresh foods industry. I am excited to see newer, more sustainable materials gain both momentum and market share, and have been privileged to play my own small part in this progress.

However, let’s look beyond the materials “replace race” that too often dominates sustainability narratives to discuss one of the most crucial crises impacting food industry sustainability today. From there, we can explore how packaging solutions can help alleviate this crisis.

Let’s take a journey together. Allow me to whisk you away to a peaceful, picturesque…

Molded fiber egg cartons are designed to prevent breakage and food waste. Image Courtesy of TekniPlex Consumer Products.

… supermarket. It’s a far cry from paradise, but a remarkable destination nonetheless. Foods from across the country and around the world in one multi-aisled, modern masterpiece. As we’ll see, this culinary abundance takes an equally impressive abundance of effort, execution, and, especially, energy.

Let’s say you need eggs – normally an easy find since the U.S. produces about 100 billion each year. You head over to the refrigerated store perimeter, scoop up a carton, and do what everyone else does: pop it open to search for any disqualifying, cracked specimens.

Lo and behold, you find a broken one. So, you do what everyone else does: you put it back. In fact, chances are no one will purchase that dozen. That’s 11 perfectly good eggs wasted due to a hairline fracture in just one.

And that, friends, is Exhibit A (or rather, Exhibit Egg) showcasing how 30-40% of the U.S. food supply is wasted. Eggs come in slightly lower than that range, about 28%, but that’s still nearly 28 billion wasted eggs per year. The current egg shortage may shave a few billion off that figure, but it’s still in the tens of billions.

Let’s continue around the store perimeter to another food waste mainstay: the meat department. Grab that ground beef.

Not that package – that one is leaking a bit. It’s probably fine, but you don’t want to chance it, or get “meat juice” on your other groceries. In fact, no one is likely to buy that package; it will join the 26% of U.S. meat wasted each year.

Need some fruit? Let’s pick up a few apples. Here’s a five-pound bag… oh wait, one of the apples has a bruise. Grab a different one. It’s little wonder why 45% of all fruits and vegetables are wasted – the equivalent of 3.7 trillion (yes, with a “T”) apples and 1 billion bags of potatoes.

All this harms more than profits. It also hurts the planet.

Food waste can be toxic

The industry has come a long way in minimizing unnecessary single-use plastics by making an increasing percentage of packaging solutions and components recyclable in existing streams. Image Courtesy of TekniPlex Consumer Products.

Food waste is already bad enough. The disposal of that waste also brings additional challenges. Food waste might be one of the least-known major factors in climate change. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food waste accounts for 2% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. To put this into perspective, that’s about half the emissions caused by the entire aviation sector.

In each of our supermarket examples, one packaging feature more than any other determined the product’s sustainability: protection. Because if it doesn’t sell, it’s not sustainable.

When food is wasted, everything that goes into developing and delivering it – all the producing, processing, transporting, preparing, and storing – is wasted along with it. Production and transportation especially generate significant CO2 emissions, and when food ends up in landfills, it emits methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas. Precious land and water also go to waste, both during and after an unutilized product’s unrealized lifecycle.

Is most food waste attributed to packaging? Absolutely not. Per reporting on USDA estimates, the majority of food waste across all categories – dairy, meat, eggs, etc. – occurs when consumers buy foodstuffs, bring them home, then fail to consume them before their real or perceived spoilage.

Where packaging does play a part is precisely the situations discussed above: fresh food points of purchase, where damage-prone goods must pass discerning eye tests – no cracks, leaks, or bruises permitted.

Do we have a stake in the sustainable packaging game?

One packaging feature more than any other determines fresh food product’s sustainability: protection. Because if it doesn’t sell, it’s not sustainable. Image Courtesy of TekniPlex Consumer Products.

You bet we do. We are a materials science company that has made significant investments into sustainable packaging solutions, from molded fiber egg cartons and produce trays to cartons and protein trays comprised of more recyclable resins like PET or molded fiber. A significant share of the packaging solutions we sell is driven, in part, by sustainability.

But our brand owner customers also know that, first and foremost, packaging decisions must be made with uncompromising product protection in mind. A broken egg in a “more sustainable” package is still a broken egg – and it will go to waste along with its 11 roommates. Ditto for leaky meat and bruised apples.

The food packaging sector has made tremendous strides in mitigating our environmental impact. Everyone is familiar with sustainability’s three capital R’s: Reduce, Recycle, and Reuse. The industry has come a long way in minimizing unnecessary single-use plastics by making an increasing percentage of packaging solutions and components recyclable in existing streams.

But that final R – reuse – can only come to fruition when a product is… well, used. So, while we’re off inventing new substrates and new techniques, we must remember that increasing packaging sustainability must also address product protection capabilities.

After all, sustainability must be practical to be practicable. In the food industry, that means it must entail both materials-science solutions and proven product protection. The most effective sustainable solutions will help save food as well as the environment.

About the Author

Eldon Schaffer is CEO of TekniPlex Consumer Products, which specializes in advanced materials science solutions for companies in the food & beverage and CPG industries, with a focus on protecting products, strengthening brands, and innovating sustainably. TekniPlex Consumer Products serves sectors including beauty and personal care, household items, and food & beverage.

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