People love to hate packaging. And, yes, there's a lot of bad and wasteful packaging out there. But packaging isn't always the enemy. When it comes to protecting and dispensing food, the right package can dramatically reduce waste. In my work as a design strategist, I've studied the worst packaging. But I've also studied the best — innovations from around the world that could have a major impact on waste if they were more widely used.
Consider this: Globally, about a third of the food produced for human consumption goes to waste — which means that a third of the water, land use, energy and financial resources that went into producing it are also squandered. Yet people often think of food as environmentally benign because it is biodegradable, while packaging is polluting. This view ignores the impact of food production. The energy that goes into packaging makes up just 10% of the total energy that goes into producing, transporting, storing and preparing food. When packaging prevents food waste even a little, it can have a major positive impact on the environment.
Here are a few examples.
Packaging saves cows
Beef is one of the most environmentally harmful foods we eat. For each pound consumed, 27 pounds of CO2 are emitted getting it to our plates. Yet, we throw away a fifth of the beef we purchase — the equivalent of 8 million cows each year — often because it goes bad before we have a chance to cook it. The solution? Food scientists have developed packaging that can keep refrigerated meat fresh for weeks. Consumers may be concerned about the environmental impact of this plastic packaging, but they shouldn't be. Consider that beef store-wrapped in butcher paper has a shelf life of one to three days, while case-ready packaging (plastic packaging pre-sealed at the processing plant) can extend that shelf life to up to 21 days. As the resources required to get that meat to a consumer's home are roughly 10 times the resources that went into that packaging, the arithmetic is clear: if purchased meat isn't going to be eaten within a few days, case-ready packaging is the better option for the environment.
Packaging protects milk
Two percent of the milk produced in the US goes bad on supermarket shelves before it's purchased. This dairy waste can be avoided with packaging technology such as Tetra Pak. In the US, consumers are most familiar with Tetra Pak in the form of juice boxes. That same carton material, a laminate of paper, plastic and aluminum, combined with a high temperature pasteurization process, is commonly used in Europe and Asia to keep milk from spoiling, even without refrigeration.
Environmentally aware consumers tend to dislike Tetra Pak material because they think it can't be recycled (it can be, but it's complicated) . However, recycled or not, Tetra Pak is a good environmental bet because it can extend the shelf life of milk up to nine months, reducing the need for refrigeration — and reducing the amount of milk that goes bad on retail shelves. And while the two percent of milk that spoils in stores might not seem like a lot, consider that the carbon footprint of that two percent is nearly the same as the carbon footprint of all of the Tetra Pak material it would take to package all of the milk consumed annually in the US. Once again, the environmental benefit of the food-protection technology outweighs the negative impact of the packaging itself.
Packaging Fixes Sticky Situations
Food left behind in jars and bottles accounts for a surprising amount of waste. One solution is the LiquiGlide ketchup bottle coating, developed at MIT. While it might seem to be just a convenience, this packaging innovation too has a positive environmental impact. Paul Butler, an independent consultant who specializes in food waste and sustainable packaging, estimates that five to seven percent of viscous food products are typically left in "empty" containers, even after scraping. The harm to the environment of that waste, Butler says, is easily greater than the negative impact of the packaging itself.
Another example of waste-reducing packaging is the concept project shown below from New York based designer Drew Stanley. Made of a soft material, this peanut butter jar can be turned inside out and scraped clean (photo: Nick Ray McCann).
In the packaging design work we've done at Continuum, we've seen how important it is to consider packaging's role in the full life-cycle of a product — from protection during shipping, to storytelling on the shelf, to end-of-life and disposal. Consumer perception must also play a part in that analysis. Packaging that's good for the environment won't work if people don't choose it. The food system presents just one example of how consumers' intuitive reaction — to overestimate the impact of visible packaging, while underestimating the impact of less visible system waste — can lead to poor choices and misplaced blame. The challenge for designers, manufacturers, and environmentalists is to make this larger, behind-the-scenes waste more tangible so that people appreciate the full impact of their choices.