Food packaging: heroes or villains?

The generation and disposal of solid waste is one of the biggest economic, environmental, and social challenges we face today. Among them, food waste and the packaging used to transport it, before or after purchase, are among the biggest contributors to waste generation.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, they account for 45% of total solid waste in that country. And even with the development of a variety of recent technologies to deal with them, most still end up in landfills.

Plastic waste is what attracts the most attention from environmentalists, and its proper management is a global priority. Among plastic waste, food packaging is the main target of concern for two reasons: the accelerated increase in production and consumption and for being disposable after a single use. Direct contact with food makes recycling extremely limited.

Single-use plastics make up 40% of the plastics produced each year and many of them, such as bags, trays, and plastic wrap, have a shelf life of hours or even minutes. But they remain in the environment for hundreds of years, whether on land or in the oceans.

On the other hand, the decomposition of food, despite being a natural process, contributes significantly to global warming. In addition, its environmental impact is even greater than that of packaging. According to experts, a ton of food in a landfill produces about 1,000 kilograms of CO2. Moreover, the decomposition of food also emits methane, which is even more harmful to the environment.

A third relevant aspect in the disposal of food (and packaging) is the waste of natural resources, such as water and energy used in its production. There is no doubt that food waste causes more problems for the environment than packaging disposal. However, this becomes even more worrying when we consider that millions of people cannot feed themselves with the minimum necessary.

Thus, it is essential to reduce or minimize food waste. For this, packaging is essential. In other words, the solution is not to eliminate them, but to use all resources, materials, and technologies to preserve food for longer, so that it can either be reused or recycled, increasing its shelf life, and reducing disposal.

Packaging technologies minimize food waste

Food waste or loss happens at every stage, whether in food production, transport, storage, processing, or cooking. Packaging plays a key role in eliminating or minimizing losses during transport and storage.

Innovative technologies to protect food and reduce waste generation 

Among the  technologies to preserve food and reduce the generation of solid waste are active packaging, barrier films and nanotechnology.

Active packaging works directly with the packaged product, eliminating residual oxygen. Among them, Modified Atmospheric Packaging –   MAP    – is one of the most used.  It mixes oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen, forming a barrier that delays the proliferation of microorganisms and, consequently, the maturation and aging of fruits and vegetables, prolonging their shelf life.

The so-called barrier films are another alternative. They contain coatings that protect against oxygen and/or moisture while reducing packaging. However, they are not recyclable and can only be used once.

The most recent nanotechnology is another possibility that has emerged as a promising alternative. The use of nanoparticles such as clay, mixed with a polymer matrix, improves the gas barrier. Silver ones can improve antimicrobial properties, while nanosensors embedded in smart packaging work as a tracking device that ensures food safety.

With these technologies and contemporary design solutions, it is possible to reduce or avoid food waste, in addition to enabling packaging recycling contributing to the circular economy and the preservation of the planet. For this, all resources must be used in the best viable way, whether packaging or food.