Buy Products in Bulk to Reduce Packaging Waste

It is almost impossible to avoid food packaging. Too many foods appear to be overpackaged, and packaging waste is an eyesore. There are many reasons that processed food is packaged. First and foremost, the product must be contained or as one of my students wrote on a test “so it doesn’t fall out all over the floor.” Second and almost as important, packages protect the food from microbes that can either spoil the food or make it unsafe. Many packages also provide convenience, keep a product from drying out, aid in food preparation, and convey useful information as to the ingredients present and its Nutrition Facts. All packages serve as marketing devices, even the plain black-and-white generic labels that hail a product as minimal and inexpensive. How much of these properties do we really need? Is it worth the negative impact on the environment?

Documentary movies have introduced us to the North Pacific Gyre, that giant- circle dead-zone that is polluted with the world’s garbage. Major problems occur in areas where the wind and water circulation is minimal. Plastic materials are of greatest concern as packaging remnants affect marine life by entanglement in trash, ingestion of small particles, and release of toxic molecules. Most of the plastic polluting the oceans comes from waste pellets generated by plastic manufacturers and ships dumping their trash in the water. I remember being disturbed as a US naval officer observing the nightly trash dump off the fantail when we were operating at sea. Other sources of plastic pollution come from fishing and tourist activities. Oceans are not the only marine environment polluted by plastics as similar problems exist in the Great Lakes. Although food packaging contributes to this problem, the solution goes far beyond the “paper or plastic” question posed at check-out lines.

We are encouraged to recycle packaging whenever possible. Glass and paper are recyclable as are many plastics, but too many recyclable packages never make it through the process. There are two major ways to recycle: (1) hand presorting of materials by the consumer, and (2) mechanical sorting by the company or agency that collects the trash. Presorting tends to be very good for separating out paper and glass but less effective for plastics. Fewer consumers are willing to take the extra effort to sort out their recyclables from trash. Mechanical sorting is more consumer- friendly and captures more plastic containers than hand sorting. Non-recyclable materials are more likely to be mixed in, however, and separation of recyclables from usable materials can prove problematic. Very little of recovered materials are reused directly, i.e., a recycled glass beer bottle washed and refilled with new beer. Even reconstruction for a similar purpose such as reusing plastic material from a food container into a similar one is rare. Most recycled food packages are downcy- cled, i.e., used for non-food-grade purposes.

Recycling programs only work if there is a market for recycled materials. Maintaining an infrastructure for recycling is expensive for municipalities, but it is such a popular practice that few politicians are willing to come out against. Cities throughout the country have active recycling programs, but I understand that some small communities that actually collect recyclables for direct transport to the landfill.

To maintain a market for recycled items, it is necessary for us to buy items made from recycled or downcycled materials. Downcycling does not really eliminate waste, though, as it merely allows for one or more times of reuse before the end of life, also known as the grave, for that material.

We feel good when we recycle, but we seem to be less responsive to the other two Rs—reduce and reuse. Food engineers reduce packaging by using less material, called “source reduction.” It used to be that it took a “real man” to crush a beer can. By making cans lighter and thinner, a beer can accidentally dropped on the floor might produce a spewing mess. We can reduce our packaging footprint by buying bigger packages, filling food stored in bulk containers into our own reusable containers, and refusing to buy obviously over-packaged products. Plastic water bottles can be decreased by filling more permanent containers with tap water. SodaStream introduced a way to eliminate soft-drink containers by carbonating diluted soda syrup at home. Bringing reusable bags to the market as an alternative to “paper or plastic” is another way to reduce packaging waste. Thoroughly washing and repurposing empty glass or plastic containers for storage of leftovers, serving of food or beverages, or containing other items such as tools or hardware also decrease waste. Even plastic bags can be reused at food pantries to prevent cross-contamination of processed food from fresh or frozen meats.

As mentioned previously, however, there are tradeoffs in everything we do. Bigger packages are fine as long as we consume most or all of the food in it and do not consume larger portions. Otherwise we might waste food or gain weight. Most supermarket and restaurant chains prohibit or discourage us from bringing our own containers to fill from bulk storage for fear of cross-contamination and potential lawsuits. Canvas bags that are reused several times without washing can accumulate dirt from unwashed vegetables and dangerous microbes from uncooked meats due to cross-contamination. Eliminating soda cans and plastic bottles has huge potential for reducing packaging waste, but it has been alleged that the gains are at the expense of unacceptable treatment of the company’s workers. Reusing appropriate food packages for other purposes has its limits when more containers accumulate than are needed.

LCA has been used to learn how food packaging affects the environment. One example shows that waste prevention activities such as bottle refilling and reuse of plastic materials enhance the benefits of recycling. The carbon footprint of kiwifruit grown in New Zealand is affected primarily by the means of transport to market, the types of packaging, and the amount of repacking that is necessary when it arrives at the market. We cannot stop just at packaging waste, we must also look at food waste.

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