A key report published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in December 2022 deserves our attention. The report provides recommendations to policymakers to help them fulfill the request from UNEP under Resolution 9 of the UNEA4 (March 2019), on “Addressing single-use plastic products pollution” (UNEP/EA.4/R.9).
Hopefully, this will help policymakers avoid following trends unsupported by scientific facts. Such studies also can be relevant for stakeholders in the packaging and food industry to assess as accurately as possible the potential environmental impacts of plastic packaging through a systemic approach over the whole value chain.
This report establishes recommendations per food archetype based on 33 studies. For refrigerated products (excluding beverages covered in another meta-analysis), the focus is to reduce food waste. For meat products, this is the No. 1 priority. For dairy products and prepared foods, food waste reduction and packaging material reduction are both considered. Life cycle assessments (LCAs) that cover the full value chain and include product losses are needed to determine whether minimizing packaging or extending shelf life leads to the lowest environmental impacts overall. For ready-to-eat or easily damaged fruits and vegetables, it is the reduction of food waste that prevails, but the reduction of packaging materials must also be considered. When the waste management system is efficient, bio-based and biodegradable packaging can allow the co-disposal of packaging with food waste.
For other categories of fruits and vegetables, the analyses show that it is preferable to sell them in bulk and transport them in reusable packaging in a favorable legislative context and with consumers who are willing and able to change their behavior related to purchasing, returning, and recycling packaging. Within the same context, it is recommended to have returnable packaging for shelf-stable products or avoid packaging for dry goods.
Conversely, if the context is not favorable—that is if the legislation is not present or if consumers do not want to make an effort—the report indicates that packaging should be minimized and optimized for the categories of fruits and vegetables and shelf-stable and dry goods. For example, plastic should be used rather than glass or cardboard for shelf-stable products, double packaging must be avoided for dry goods, and preference should be given to recyclable packaging with high recycled content.
The report has four cross-cutting themes.
Food Waste vs. Packaging Impacts
“When seeking solutions to single-use plastic food packaging, it is important not to exacerbate the food waste problem,” the report says.
Packaging has its role, and here is a good example:
“Modified atmosphere packaging, designed specifically to extend the shelf life of refrigerated products and minimize food waste, has higher packaging impacts compared to conventional packaging. However, on balance when including avoided food waste, the modified packaging has greater overall environmental benefits.”
Therefore, it is necessary to use LCAs, and packaging must be designed to minimize food waste, especially when these foods have significant impacts related to their production.
Role of Bio-based Biodegradable Plastics
As usual, bio-based and biodegradable are unfortunately associated, and the authors of the report are aware of this confusion and define the differences. This point is worth discussing, especially in light of the latest decisions of the U.S. federal government in March that promote a shift toward bio-based products to reduce the accumulation of plastic waste in the next five to 20 years. The environmen-tal benefits of substituting petroleum-based plastics with bio-based plastics in food packaging are not clear-cut. Across all studies, we see bio-based or biodegradable alternatives reduce some impacts but increase others.
As the report states, “Overall, the relative environmental performance of bio-based and fossil fuel-based plastics is not well established … .”
LCAs on bioplastic packaging need to cover the entire life cycle as the end of life can have important consequences. You really must go on a case-by-case basis for compostable packaging: If it is contaminated with food scraps, it is fine to allow co-disposal. But you still need to have the infrastructure in place and to educate consumers on how to sort the waste because compostable plastics may disrupt recycling systems set up for traditional plastics. In addition, it has little effect on the environmental impacts of littered plastics because these biodegradable plastics do not degrade quickly when they end up in a natural environment. “Bio-based and biodegradable plastics seem to present the same—or even higher—chemical threat as conventional plastics,” the report quotes from a scientific paper.
Reusable and Returnable Packaging in Food Systems
They must be implemented where appropriate. This requires efficient and local return logistics, with optimized cleaning and distribution. Therefore, it is necessary to think through the reusable packaging system before implementing it. A solution deserves great collaborative efforts and requires strong policy support. It is necessary to aim at a standardization of packaging and to be competitively priced, accessible, and convenient. The report suggests implementing taxes on packaging waste, strengthening food packaging standards, and having extended producer responsibility legislation that stimulates reuse.
Marine Litter Impacts
On this subject, the key insights are the following: Except for expanded polystyrene, “climate change impacts are still likely to be the most important consideration, whereas marine microplastic litter impacts (physical effects on biota) are several orders of magnitude smaller.” And from the studies I have looked at, there does not seem to be a link between food packaging and microplastics, which come from other sources. Moreover, we know that plastics do not have the greatest impact on climate change.
More recently, a practical guide on sustainable food packaging was published by the Institute of Packaging Technology and Food Engineering. Only in French for the moment, this guide financed by the Quebec government under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership proposes best practices for a whole series of food products. I will leave them the last word: “Consumers mistakenly think that packaging has a greater environmental impact than it actually does. This myth is largely due to images of plastics accumulating in the oceans and sorting centers that are more tangible than the climate change observed in response to increased [greenhouse gas emissions].”
Issues around food production and food waste have much more impact on the environment. That is where the focus should be first, and packaging is here to help.
The importance of LCAs, single-use, and food applications will be discussed at the upcoming SPE FlexPackCon® in October. This year, it is North America’s leading technical conference on flexible packaging.
Pierre Sarazin is vice president of research and development and sustainability at PolyExpert Inc. based in Canada. NOTE: This column originally ran online in June.