Monday, February 8, 2010

What's The Appropriate Amount of Food Packaging?

Most of us in the eco-world probably agree that in an ideal world we'd all eat a mostly local, organic diet of food we bought at a farmers' market and cooked ourselves. We'd thriftily manage our food waste through careful meal planning, and would use leftover almost-bad veggies in a nice no-waste stew once a week. The little waste that was unusable or unavoidable would go in our compost piles or be fed to our pet chickens.

Unfortunately, the reality for many of us eco-bloggers and the majority of Americans is quite different. As someone who has struggled through Crunchy Chicken's No Waste Challenge (sign up now!) several times, I can attest that it is HARD not to waste food.

Which is what makes this article today in the Freakonomics blog so interesting. In it, James McWilliams points out that though many of us disparage food packaging, it does have the effect of increasing shelf life of food. As a result, food packaging might decrease food waste.

I know it's not super popular to be pro-food packaging in the eco-blogosphere, but I couldn't help nodding along when reading McWilliams' post. Last year, I subscribed to a CSA for a few months and I found that I wasted a LOT of food. It wasn't just that it was too much food for one person (which it was) or that I was too lazy to cook much (I was.) Sometimes, the food would arrive at my door almost spoiled. I also found that oftentimes, unless I processed the food right away, it would go bad.

I've come to realize that I personally need to take short cuts in order to cook more, eat more fruits and veggies, and waste less. For instance, I will often put off washing and peeling my farmers' market bought carrots. The carrots will go bad, and I'll have to dump them in the trash. On the other hand, if I buy organic baby carrots, I'll probably eat the whole bag in a few days. Similarly, the resealable bags of baby spinach are my friends.

Now, there still is an inordinate amount of food packaging waste out there. I still fail to see why bananas require plastic wrap. And though I have occasionally bought the Trader Joe's packaged cut apples, I recognize that the inability to cut your own apples is an extraordinary form of laziness.

But I think we all need to assess (as always) what the right balance is in our lives. If food packaging keeps us from wasting food, it might not be the evil bogeyman that many environmentalists believe it to be. I suspect Beth is going to kill me for suggesting this, but if the waste trade-off is either the plastic bag for a bag of pre-washed lettuce, or an entire head of lettuce that rotted before you got to eating it, I would probably say to go with the bag of lettuce. (To be clear, the obvious best solution is to buy a head of lettuce and then not waste it. I'm not denying that. I'm just arguing that that's not always what actually HAPPENS despite our best intentions.)

My point, aside from antagonizing everybody, is that the reality is that Americans waste a lot of food. Thus, rather than trying to achieve an idealized unpackaged world that may be unrealistic for the average consumer, we need to take a hard look and differentiate between frivolous packaging and packaging that might actually lead to less overall waste.


heidi said...

I'd just be happy if the packaging was recyclable: magazines come in plastic on occasion but only the plastic newspaper bag is stamped with a number... same material!

Anonymous said...

Why not:
- buy the lettuce and bag it at home?
- talk to your csa about quality?

What is your long term solution? Since we are using so many non-renewable resources for food production at some point it will have to end - then what? Without choices we'll have to think fast. Wouldn't it be better to come up with solutions now - while we have time to make well thought out choices?

Mad Hatter said...

Huh...I've never seen bananas in plastic wrap! This is slightly off-topic, but not only do we waste a lot of food for the reasons you describe, but we waste food for entertainment. Think about all the eating contests, the build-a-replica-of-Hogwarts-out-of-cake contests, etc. It's kind of sickening, isn't it?

Olivia said...

Anonymous - wanna give us some solutions?

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

If the choice is between food waste and packaging waste, why is the packaging waste better? At least food can be composted and can have a useful future life. Now maybe if the packaging could be recycled cradle to cradle style, then maybe I'd agree with you.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

Sorry for two comments, but I thought of something else to add...Most vegetables if stored properly will last at least a week. Carrots, for example, can be put in a jar of water (kind of like a flower), and they'll last a month in the fridge. Celery too. Lettuce should be wrapped in a damp towel - that would probably work for spinach too. For other vegetables - Beth recently posted a huge document about storing vegetables without plastic.

Anonymous said...

My suggestions for solutions:
- have fewer children
- travel less (work & play)
- turn down heat in house
- unplug unused appliances
- buy organic, local
- eat farther down the food chain
- grow your own
- buy used
- use renewable energy every chance you get
- downsize: smaller house, less stuff
- know your producers- don't buy stuff from just anyone
- work for change in your neighborhood
- if you feel real ambitious calculate your carbon footprint and try to live within a sustainable limit

Not perfect,but at least I try.

and your suggestions?

ruchi said...

Heidi, well one of the problems is that plastic cannot be recycled in a closed loop fashion. At best, plastic is downcycled. I agree though, that the more packaging that is at least downcycled the better.

EJ, I'm not sure what the long term solution is although I think that our opinions vary on how dire the situation will be in the future. I'm also not sure that buying lettuce and bagging it at home is the answer ... it still involves plastic, though perhaps less plastic if you reuse the bags.

Mad Hatter, you make a good point. Food can be wasted in a number of ways. Over eating is another type of waste for sure.

Erin, well there are a few reasons one could argue that food waste is worse than packaging waste. One, it often weighs more and takes up more volume in the landfill. Two, as McWilliams points out, food can emit methane when decomposing which can add to global warming while packaging waste is inert. Three, one could argue that it is perhaps more immoral to waste food in a world where so many suffer from hunger than it is to waste packaging.

Anonymous, all great suggestions. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Look at what she is doing:!

Rosa said...

Packaging isn't really designed primarily to preserve food, is it? In a lot of cases it's designed as marketing, or chosen because it's cheap (standard can/jar sizes) or light (plastic over glass).

In some cases the packaging makes food go bad faster - plastic bags are bad for potatos and mushrooms, but they get sold in them anyway.

You get more wastage from shrinkwrapped coffee than steel can coffee (the bags get broken more easily) but the cost * weight of the packaging is so much cheaper the shrinkwrapped bricks make economic sense. Except for companies that already own steel can-filling machines, and then the new packing machines are a big cost.

I guess what I'm saying is, I don't think either food preservation or not wasting packaging material is the primary focus of design, because both food & packaging material are cheap compared to labor, market share, and shipping. Maybe the way to get both of those factors included in corporate decision making is to make materials more expensive in the first place.

I was interested to hear in a report about the British food carbon labels that companies have been happy to do a lot of the analysts' suggestions to reduce impact, because it saves them money. But they weren't going to make those changes on their own because the analysis itself costs money with no guarantee it will have a return. So maybe investing in some R&D would have an effect on waste, too.

Rosa said...

p.s. I know i've said this before, but MY ideal world involves the local food courts, restaurants, and prepared-food sellers buying local, paying their help decently, and now using plastic packaging.

I like to cook but I would happily give it up to someone else if they were nonexploitive and sustainable. I don't think I'm alone in that.

packaging supplier said...

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Jen R said...

I agree with Erin. A plastic bag lasts for ever. A rotten head of lettuce can be composted.