Explanation: The share of food packaging in our waste nightmare
We pack and pack too much of our food with the wrong things, and throw too much of it into the environment. It’s time for a radical change, say Dennis Wesselbaum and Ingrid Mödinger
Packaging is a pervasive feature of the purchase and consumption of food. It guarantees the quality of the food we consume during storage and transport and reduces food waste. In addition, the packaging is designed to minimize bacterial growth and to keep food fresh and safe.
Plastic packaging is often used because it is light, flexible and strong, making it a versatile product with many applications.
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Overall, food packaging is an important factor in the food supply chain. However, food packaging leads to an increasing amount of waste. To be precise, according to the NZ Packaging Council, we consume 735,000 tonnes of packaging and send 352,000 tonnes of waste to landfills each year. Globally, around 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced over the past 70 years, with single-use packaging being the largest sector.
The waste itself and the poor waste management strategies we are currently using in Aotearoa, New Zealand, generate various unwanted effects. These effects not only impact the environment and wildlife, but can also affect human health. For example, ingesting microplastics has been shown to have adverse health effects.
Waste management is usually done through a combination of practices such as landfill, incineration or recycling. Landfilling has become an increasingly less preferred option over time due to land scarcity and the release of toxic chemicals that contaminate the air, soil and water. Likewise, incineration results in the release of hazardous chemicals into the atmosphere and creates hazardous air pollution.
What can be done to reduce the size and impact of the waste problem in Aotearoa, New Zealand? The most promising way to reduce the problem is to use what is called “source reduction”. Source reduction primarily means waste prevention or reducing the toxicity of waste. This includes redesigning packaging, using different materials and adjusting the manufacturing process.
Examples of source reduction include weight reduction, i.e. reducing the weight of packaging and therefore the amount or types of materials they need. One could also use non-toxic materials such as biodegradable polymers, eg cellophane, but these require commercially compostable disposal facilities and hardly any of these exist in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Finally, like the ban on single-use plastic bags, other single-use items such as take-out packaging should be banned and readily available reuse programs should be put in place.
Importantly, policymaking should make recycling more accessible – for example by increasing the number of items accepted – consistent across all boards, and should develop flexible plastic recycling programs. In addition, decision makers should focus on commercially compostable facilities and should add a collection for compostable components, such as food scraps and commercially compostable packaging, to prevent them from ending up in landfills.
Along this line, we need to make sure that consumers ‘master the waste’ and understand how to reduce waste and how to recycle and reuse. A related strategy is to encourage consumers to produce less waste and increase recycling, reuse and composting. For example, in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency uses a pay-per-use system that charges waste management services based on the amount of waste produced.
In conclusion, in our consumption-based economy, we need to develop new and creative waste management solutions and we need policy makers to support these initiatives with financial resources, laws and regulations. We need to radically change the way we produce, collect, process and dispose of our waste in order to protect our environment, wildlife and health.
This article was co-authored by Dr Dennis Wesselbaum – Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Otago, and his partner Ingrid Mödinger, Head of Instructional Design at Education Perfect and Co-Founder of Nomad.