Think about this – three to five-year-olds in a recent study rated food as being six times more appetising when it was wrapped in McDonald's packaging, compared to the same food in plain wrappers. According to estimates, the global food packaging industry is now worth $100 billion annually, growing at the rate of ten to fifteen per cent each year. However, it is also true that each year an estimated 6.3 million tonnes of packaging comes into British homes – and less than one third of it is recycled.
Why should I be aware of this?
It is clear that today, food packaging has grown way beyond its own stated goals – of ensuring hygiene and keeping the food contaminant-free; preserving and prolonging the shelf life of food; safe and efficient transportation without leaks or spills and for providing food labels. Food packaging now is a form of marketing, a method of extending the company’s brand. That is why even fresh fruit today reaches the shelves of our neighbourhood stores with little stick-on labels and white mesh jackets.
All about food packaging
Types of food packaging materials
- Paper is cheap, light and versatile. It is an invaluable packaging material in the form of corrugated cardboard, especially for food that has to to be transported over long distances. The current recycling rate for paper and board packaging waste is estimated at forty nine per cent.
- Glass may be easily recycled. In fact, well developed recycling systems for glass bottles exist in the UK and USA. That is why many consider it to be one of the most eco-friendly options for packaging available today. The recycling rate for glass is twenty two per cent.
- Aluminium is also an eco-friendly option as it is easy to recycle. It is commonly used to package drinks cans, foils and laminates.
- Steel is a good option for sturdy packaging. It is fully recyclable which makes it eco friendly too.
- Plastic is a sturdy and light option for packaging. Although some of it may be recycled, few countries offer good facilities for plastic recycling. Instead, as much as ninety five per cent of it is either landfilled or incinerated.
What makes modern packaging so wasteful?
Given that Food Packaging by its very nature is stuff you peel off and throw, it is indeed alarming to note the pace at which the packaging industry is growing. The reasons are manifold –
- Demographers tell us that the average size of households has been steadily falling over the decades, while the population is going up. This effectively means that there are more people buying smaller portions of food – and consequently, more packaging.
- A trend towards urbanisation has meant that fewer people are growing their own food, and also, fewer are living close to places where food is grown. When food needs to travel in order to be eaten, it needs to be packaged appropriately.
- Today more so than earlier, more people are aspiring to eat foods that are exotic, as opposed to all those `boring’ foods that are grow locally. However interestingly exotic Irish butter, Norwegian Salmon or Indian alfonsos may seem – the fact is that the longer a food needs to travel, the more heavily it will be packaged to maintain freshness.
- With both partners working, the demand for processed food and convenience food like TV Dinners has steadily gone up since the fifties. Convenience food is always rather inconveniently packaged in several layers of packaging.
How packaging can affect its content
- Bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical widely used in used in plastic food containers, cans and dental sealants – may contribute to the development of breast cancer. It is known to leach from products and get absorbed in low concentrations by the human body. Experiments at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts, show that exposure to this chemical made female mice likely to develop breast cancer and also to respond unusually to estrogen, which fuels most breast cancer in humans. Scientists in Japan have found evidence of a linkage between exposure to BPA and recurrent miscarriages.
- Phthalates (chemicals called phthalic acid diesters) are found in adhesives, cling wraps and some printing inks. While the jury is still out on their possible ill effects, they are suspected of being carcinogenic as well of being endocrine disruptors (they contain compounds that mimic human hormones). Potentially, Granny Smith apples with their little stickers and any food wrapped in cling film, could have been contaminated by phthlates.
- Aluminium can be present naturally in food and it is sometimes added during processing. But small amounts may also pass into food from cookware or packaging. Studies link exposure to Aluminium with a greater probability of getting Alhzeimer’s Disease. Hoewever, the chances of getting it from food packaging are quite low.
What can I do?
- Buy fruit and vegetables loose or in paper bags
- Carry your own bags to the supermarket
- Choose larger sizes rather than individually packaged portions.
- Look for products with biodegradable packaging, such as cardboard or cornstarch-based containers, or tea bags made with cornstarch instead of nylon.
- Find out if there's a local milkman who will deliver in glass bottles that can be used over and over again
- Ask your local supermarket what steps it is taking to reduce packaging waste.
How businesses can reduce waste from packaging
Businesses may be able to effectively reduce the amount they package if they follow the three Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle.
- Reduce the amount of pointless packaging has to be reduced. What is the need to shrink wrap those cucumbers, or put apples in polystyrene trays?
- Many food producers and supermarkets, have signed a voluntary agreement called the Courtauld Commitment, to reduce the amount of packaging they use. (For more on this, visit Courtauld Commitment)
- Reusing empty containers is cheaper and easier than recycling them. Glass jars and some plastic bottles can be used for storage. If you have plastic bags (as most of us regrettably do) use them till they fall apart.
Another option that food producers have is to switch to biodegradable packaging, which will easily breakdown and disappear into the soil or the atmosphere, without causing damage. There are many biodegradable plastics made from plant-based cellulose (corn is being extensively used for this) which may soon be able to replace conventional non-degradable materials.
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