Reinventing Food Packaging | Sustainability Challenges & Progress

The Newest Innovation In Sustainable Food Packaging

Sara Risch, Ph.D. recently spoke at the 246th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.  Her topic: the need for new packaging materials that are not only sustainable, but do not sacrifice the freshness, visibility, and security of the food inside.

“We face a huge challenge in developing new packaging materials that protect food all through the supply chain while being recyclable, compostable, produced with renewable energy, or even edible.”  Dr. Risch said.  She further explained how nature has already set this standard:  Fruits like apples, oranges, and bananas come in a natural form of packaging that keeps the fruits fresh and safe while being compostable or edible – their peels.

Risch noted that the food industry has clearly embraced sustainable packaging, which by most definitions means packaging that is compostable, recyclable, reusable, and created and transported with renewable energy.  But the main staple of sustainable packaging is that it’s safe for both people and the environment throughout its entire life cycle.

The Current State of Sustainable Food Packaging

Risch cited some obvious examples of sustainable packaging like water bottles with reduced plastic and compostable potato chip bags, saying “The industry has made great strides in reducing the amount of packaging.  But remember that packaging is there to protect the product and that function must not be compromised.  Not all materials can be properly cleaned for re-use, for instance, and in some cases, it takes a lot of fuel to collect and transport glass and the heavy materials for re-use.  In some instances, the fuel may exceed the value of the recycled material.”

Industry data indicates that the overall use of sustainable packaging has diverted nearly one-and-a-half billion pounds of paper, plastic, and various other packaging materials from landfills just between the year 2005 and the year 2010, just in the United States.  Though plastic wrap and cardboard boxes are lightweight on their own, along with other food packaging they help to account for 1/3 of the 250,000,000 pounds of solid waste produced in the U.S. annually.

Some examples of the challenges of further sustainability in the food packaging industry that Rische cited were compostable plastic bottles, cutlery, and food trays.  Microbes in soil will break down those plastics in the same way they will grass and leaves in garden compost.  However, there are still uncertainties about the byproducts produced during this plastic breakdown.

The Future Of Sustainable Food Packaging

Risch further noted that edible packaging was receiving a lot of attention.  Last year, a fast-food chain in Brazil posted a video online of its customers eating not only their burgers, but the paper wrap as well.  The technology exists to make edible packaging now, and many companies have begun experimenting with fast-food wraps made from mushrooms, nuts, dried fruits, and several other sources.

When Risch was asked if sustainable packaging would bring the day that cereal, frozen pizzas, beverages and the like would be entirely edible or compostable, package and all, she replied:

“I do not see this happening any time soon.  There are just too many challenges in terms of developing structural integrity, as well as the barriers to oxygen and water, that are typically needed for foods.  Without that protection, the packaged food won’t be sustainable.  It will have a short shelf-life and spoil quickly.”