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September 03, 2021 Madhura Rao By Madhura Rao My Articles

Plastic-Free Food Packaging: Where Do We Stand?

As an avid advocate for keeping groceries as plastic-free as possible, I have always wondered about what stops supermarkets and local grocers from relinquishing plastic altogether. Join me as I explore whether it is reasonable for us to expect food producers to start switching out plastic for more sustainable packaging materials.

It is estimated that 60% of all plastic ever produced has ended up in landfills, as of 2015.1 Even as consumers, we know all too well that our use-and-throw habits contribute towards the ever-expanding landfills. But what prompted the rapid proliferation of plastic use within mere decades of its conception, and how did this poster child of materials engineering innovation become inextricably connected to our consumption patterns? 

Illustration by Caitlin Mack

Where did it all start? 

The 20th Century brought global upheaval, most notably the World Wars. During this time, the convenience of plastics made them a perfect fit for several applications from food packaging to military functions like Saran wrap used for equipment protection.2 Today, it can be found on my counter, humbly waiting to cling to a half-eaten sandwich.

Over time, various types of plastics were introduced to our kitchens, offering convenience, protection, and versatility. It is understandable, really - plastic packaging can be made portable, prevents cross-contamination, regulates portion sizes, is shatter-resistant, allows for the clear marking of nutritional information and other food regulation requirements, and is cheap to produce. With multiple layers being added as reinforcements and additives like plasticizers, stabilizers, absorbers, and retardants being incorporated to better mould the package for its desired purpose, it quickly became the top choice for producers and consumers alike. As guilt-inducing as it is to declare, plastic is ideal for packaging. 

What does plastic really cost us?

All of this convenience comes at a price - food contact materials (FCMs) like those made of plastic and its additives can leach or diffuse chemicals into the food product, a process known as migration. These could be carcinogenic, like formaldehyde in PET packaging, or endocrine-disrupting chemicals like phthalates, that, in low doses, may have toxicological effects with prolonged exposure.3 However, the most conspicuous concern with plastic packaging is its short, linear life cycle - most plastics do not make it to recycling plants, and have limited ability to be recycled if they do. 

Where are we headed?

On the path towards a circular economy, plastic continues to be a conundrum. While producing it does have a lower environmental impact compared to many alternatives like paper, glass, or aluminium, heaps of plastic waste continue to accumulate and permeate our environments. The EU’s Green Deal, a framework of policies that seek to strive towards a circular, sustainable economy, includes plans for the revision of FCM legislation for improved food safety as well as more reusable, recyclable packaging as part of its farm to fork strategy.4 However, recycled plastics carry their own set of challenges, and studies have indicated that they may have a higher level of contaminants than virgin plastics.5

Read more about how the EU Green Deal will impact our food system

Illustration by Caitlin Mack

Are there realistic alternatives?

One way to resolve this impasse is through the use of alternatives. The first would be our attempts to replicate plastic using (at least partly) biologically derived materials, known as bioplastics – these could be biodegradable or non-biodegradable. Based on these materials and their configurations, packaging products such as RefuCoat aim to use the biodegradable properties of PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoate) and PGAs (polyglycolic acid) to create bio-based barriers. These layers would replace the currently used non bio-based layering, which is created from non-renewable, petrol-based material, all while studying what combination works best for cost and recyclability.6 

There are also attempts to examine the viability of starch-based or polysaccharide-based packages, like cassava-derived material or biodegradable TPS (thermoplastic starch) and PHA. Moreover, there are parallel conversations being held about the possibilities of blending these materials with protein-based polymers.

While these are certainly strong strides in the right direction, each alternative comes with its own set of challenges. Bioplastics touted as biodegradable or compostable come with a caveat; for instance, I would not be able to toss my bioplastic container in my backyard compost pile and let the worms get to it. These are primarily only compostable or biodegradable under a specific set of controlled conditions or in an industrial-grade facility. With starch or protein-based materials, there is also the challenge of food safety regulations, shelf life, and water sensitivity. The cost of food waste, in case of reduced shelf life caused by plastic-alternative packaging, is much greater than the environmental footprint left behind by plastic waste. If this overall impact cannot be offset, it evokes the question of whether it is feasible in the long run.5

Read 6 Things To Know About Compostable Plastics.

Illustration by Caitlin Mack

The bottom line

While immediate demands for plastic alternatives stem from a place of rightful concern, we must remember to frame these in an informed context. It is important to remember that going ‘plastic-free’ is not a choice that we as consumers can all make on our own. Well, not all of us at least. Some food producers and retailers are already switching out plastic packaging and stocking shelves with products that appeal to the environmentally conscious consumer. However, these products are not always affordable or accessible to everyone. At the moment, it is impossible for most of us, irrespective of how strongly we feel about the environmental implications of buying food packaged in plastic, to remove it from our kitchens and pantries completely.

Personally, I do my best to choose the plastic-free alternative whenever I can. I store my leftovers in glass containers, I always pick the bar of chocolate that’s wrapped in paper, and I request the barista to not fix a plastic lid on my cup of coffee whenever I buy it to go. But I must admit that I have not cut Kettle chips out of my life because they come in a plastic package. Nor have I looked for a new Asian grocery store because my current one refuses to pack fresh tofu in the box that I bring from home. So, the bottom line is, you win some, you lose some. And I know that I’m not alone on this quest for finding the right balance between reducing dependence on plastic and not eschewing the convenience that the modern world affords us.   

As researchers continue to develop bio-alternatives, better packaging design, and improve the recyclable properties of food packaging, I am somewhat reassured that these efforts are being mirrored in our communities, with more attention being paid to low or zero-waste lifestyles and consumption patterns than ever before. I am convinced that the best way forward, for the industry as well as consumers, is to take one step at a time and slowly (but surely) move towards a future where ensuring the safety of food does not come with a side of irreversible environmental damage.

Do you try to avoid plastic while buying food? Share your experiences with us!

Banner illustration by Caitlin Mack

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