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Packaging materials are here to stay. It is a necessity we see in many industries for many products, and there is no question why these products require a package.
Whether we like it or not, packaging products is essential to prevent damage, spoilage or contamination. This fact becomes especially true for current food production.
Food is something we all need to survive. But to ensure its safety from contamination and give it an extended life on store shelves or in our homes to prevent food waste, most food requires packaging materials.
Unfortunately for the planet, a lot of food packaging materials are single-use and not recycled.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 258 million tons of municipal solid waste was generated in 2014, about 63 percent of which was packaging materials for food and other uses.
The impact of packaging, and most food packaging materials, in particular, cause harm to the ocean, our air and our land. It is a crucial problem that cannot be solved overnight but cannot be overlooked.
Packaging waste causes significant harm to our environment, and companies and consumers must take steps to help reduce and control these harmful effects
A Life Cycle of Negative Impact
Now you may be wondering how is packaging bad for the environment; how does food packaging materials affect the environment? What are the impacts of packaging?
Well, it all starts at the beginning of its life cycle and continues throughout, leaving a negative environmental footprint each step of the way.
A package’s life cycle starts from its creation to its disposal, so the negative environmental impact of most food packaging materials happening every step of its life is very concerning.
To better understand how impactful food packaging can be to the environment, let us look at the three main stages of its life cycle.
Sourcing and Production
The problem with most food packaging begins right at its creation. All forms of packaging, whether for food or not, require a certain amount of resources and energy to manufacture.
Manufacturing can, and most likely will, emit greenhouse gases harmful to our air, produce harmful heavy metals particulates or dump toxic waste sludge into our waters.
Even factors such as water use, chemicals, petroleum or collection of wood and other resources contribute to the environmental impact caused during production.
To dive deeper and better understand how impactful food packaging materials production can be, let us look at the production of some common packaging materials.
Glass food packaging begins with the usage of fossil fuels like natural gas or petroleum gas is needed to melt the feedstock material to produce glass.
During this process, the combustion of fossil fuels emits harmful emissions into the air, such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides.
What are the harmful effects?
When sulfur and nitrogen oxides mix with water and sunlight, it creates acid rain, which harms all sorts of plant life, vegetation and aquatic animals.
On top of the harmful acid rain produced, melting the feedstock also emits toxic particulates like lead and arsenic, which can cause significant health problems to animals and humans alike.
Like glass, the production of aluminum also releases harmful emissions. But on top of that, manufacturing aluminum is an energy-intensive process that creates toxic, caustic sludge that may contain radioactive elements.
Radioactive elements should be enough to understand the damage producing plastic or aluminum foil can cause to the environment, but if you’re still not convinced, this toxic sludge has a name!
It is known as red mud. This waste is potent enough to kill plant and animal life and cause burns and significant damage to a person’s airways.
Paper or paperboard containers production is energy-intensive and involves chemical or mechanical processes that cause harmful air emissions like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.
In the past, producing paperboard containers for food packaging materials also resulted in large volumes of toxic wastewater. However, with modern processes, the water can now be recycled and produce no liquid waste, which is a step in the right direction!
But that doesn’t mean paper packaging is free from adverse environmental impacts.
Forty-two percent of all global wood harvest is for making paper. If not regulated, deforestation is a significant and genuine concern.
The final material to cover in the manufacturing process is plastic food packaging materials. Manufacturing plastic involves turning and burning fossil fuels into said plastic, but the process is highly chemical and pollutant.
So is plastic food packaging bad for the environment? Very much so.
Plastic pollution accounts for significant greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and chemicals such as mercury are also dumped into the water as waste.
Mercury naturally turns into methylmercury and bioaccumulates on fish when dumped into the environment. Consuming fish with high mercury contents is highly toxic to humans and animals.
It is not just the production of food packaging that harms the environment. The environmental impact of packaging continues.
As briefly mentioned, packaging pollutes the environment every step of the way, whether directly or indirectly.
In this case, the transportation of packaging also affects the environment. Air pollution through airplanes, ships and trucks also harm our environment!
Fuel is needed to move packaging from one point to another. And though we will always need transportation, there are ways to lighten plastic pollution. We will discuss how to do this soon.
Disposal of Packaging Waste
The final major factor that affects the environmental impact of food packaging is the end of its life cycle, the disposal.
What packaging pollutes the environment during disposal?
The answer is everything, but food packaging accounts for over half of all municipal solid waste in the US. It is up to companies and consumers to take steps to dispose of municipal solid waste through proper channels to minimize plastic pollution.
But the unfortunate reality is that most packaging still finds its way into a landfill or is littered after usage.
And though paper accounts for 26 percent of landfill municipal solid waste, plastic packaging, in particular, is significantly harmful when not properly handled. Plastics often litter our oceans and streets, seriously harming avian and aquatic life.
In 2016 alone, around 23 million metric tons of plastic waste entered the ocean, where aquatic animals and birds often get tangled in such debris or mistake it for food.
According to ocean conservancy, plastic has been found in 59 percent of seabirds, 100 percent of sea turtles and more than 25 percent of sampled fish from seafood markets worldwide.
To make matters worse, this statistic is increasing.
But not only does litter harm the environment, landfills are no better. Mishandled food packaging will either end up in a landfill or incinerated.
Incineration causes air pollutants, but landfills also emit pollutants like ammonia.
On top of the air pollutants, most landfills’ waste is not biodegradable and may take centuries to decompose completely.
Glass bottles take up to 1 million years to decompose.
Plastic bottles average 450 years.
Aluminum beverage cans deteriorate in 80 to 200 years.
Plastic bags and flexible packaging take 10 to 20 years to decompose.
Even when the above waste eventually decomposes after many lifetimes, it will still leave harmful chemicals in the environment.
So to minimize packaging’s harmful environmental footprint, steps and initiatives must be taken.
Solutions to Reduce the Impact of Food Packaging Materials
With advancing technology and the innovation of alternate, sustainable modern food packaging, business and consumers may start taking the appropriate steps to reduce the environmental impact of food packaging.
Eco-friendly and sustainable methods are becoming more readily available for businesses that need to change for the planet’s betterment.
And like the negative impacts throughout a package’s life cycle, businesses can look at each step and make positive changes!
Sustainable Sourcing and Manufacturing
To begin, the first step in making a positive impact of food packaging on the environment is to choose your suppliers and manufacturers wisely.
Sustainable sourcing and manufacturing integrates social, ethical and environmental factors in selecting a supplier for your raw packaging materials and a manufacturer to produce your food packaging.
Look for companies that ethically source renewable resources and for manufacturers that aim to reduce negative environmental impacts by conserving energy and natural resources.
Biodegradable and Compostable Packaging Materials
Aside from sustainable sourcing, businesses can also use friendlier packaging materials to produce their packaging, ultimately leading to more environmentally friendly disposal.
What modern food packaging is environmentally safe?
Unlike plastic packaging, biodegradable food packaging materials like plant-based or natural mineral materials are designed to break down without leaving any harmful compounds. They can also break down anywhere between several days to a year.
Compared to 450 years for a plastic bottle that will also leave behind toxic compounds, it’s a vast improvement!
You can also use biodegradable packaging more than once and reduce its environmental impact by disposing of it at the proper waste management facilities.
And on the other hand, compostable packaging can be another option.
Like biodegradable food packaging, compostable packaging can break down without leaving any toxic traces and provides valuable nutrients to the soil, but the proper conditions are required.
Compostable packaging must be sent to an industrial composting facility to achieve these environmental benefits. Some compostable packages can be disposed of at home, but proper waste management is generally required.
Go Lightweight and Minimal on Packaging
The next way to reduce environmental impact is through transportation and modern food packaging design.
As mentioned earlier, we will always need transportation. But by redesigning your package so that it is lightweight and smaller, you can also impact the transportation side of pollution!
Smaller and lighter food packaging poses opportunities to reduce the overall carbon footprint of shipping your products. It streamlines your shipping by increasing the amount of product you can move in one trip and reducing the overall weight.
Upcycling, Recycling and A Circular Economy
Moving onto the final part of a food package’s life cycle, businesses can implement solutions here too.
One method is upcycling, which is the use of discarded or waste packaging materials to produce other higher quality items than the original.
In terms of modern food packaging, a business can upcycle its waste materials. For example, companies or consumers can upcycle plastic bottles and polythene as arts and crafts or use them as building materials for the favelas in Brazil!
Alternatively, businesses can also promote a recycling initiative.
Many wastes that can be recycled, like plastic, need to be recycled. Efficient collection and separation processes must be implemented and enforced to reduce our negative environmental impact of food packaging, but the environmental benefits are worth it.
Promoting and enforcing a recycling initiative is one step toward creating the final solution we will discuss: a circular economy.
In a circular economy, food packaging materials are recycled, reused and recycled again without ending up in a landfill or littered into the ocean.
This means that, in a perfect world, no plastics or waste will pollute our planet. So much food packaging will have a circular life cycle instead of one with a beginning and end.
Giant companies like Coca-Cola are pushing this initiative by setting the goal of having 100 percent of their plastic bottles made of recycled packaging materials by 2030, and other businesses can aim for this change too!
Benefits of Reducing Environmental Impacts
But with the negative impacts of so much food packaging in mind and the possible solutions to fix these problems, you might wonder about the benefits of implementing these changes.
Well, for the obvious first, implementing these positive changes to your food packaging process will help protect our planet.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preserving natural resources and habitats, and protecting wildlife comes with making these positive changes.
We only have one earth; if plastic pollution and our heavy environmental footprint continue to rise, the consequences will also come in kind.
Every individual and business is responsible for ensuring that our planet remains healthy and livable for future generations, but we understand that businesses are just that. Companies need to make a profit, and you can!
How Does Being Sustainable Benefit My Business?
There are many benefits companies can gain by pushing for more sustainable ways to do business.
Sustainability doesn’t just help the planet, but it also benefits you too.
Better Brand Image
To start, a survey conducted by the Natural Marketing Institute indicates that up to 58 percent of consumers prefer to purchase from companies practicing sustainable habits.
More and more consumers are beginning to make purchasing decisions while also considering environmental and social values.
By promoting and pushing a sustainable initiative for your business, you are doing the right thing by protecting the planet and reaching out to the rapidly growing “conscious consumer” base.
And not only are you reaching out to the consumers, but you are also reaching out to potential talented employees.
Talented people want to work for companies with a good brand reputation who support a positive message, leading us to the next benefit.
Pushing a sustainable initiative helps with employee retention, attracts talented workers, and increases productivity and satisfaction.
Turning the workplace into a sustainable and environmentally friendly place helps improve morale, cognition and comfort while reducing employee absenteeism.
Happy and comfortable employees are more productive and creative than unhappy employees.
Reduced Business Costs
Being a sustainable and environmentally friendly business will also reduce costs in the long run.
Though investing in sustainable solutions may initially be costly, the benefits will outlast the upfront cost once implemented.
Looking back at the significant impact of food packaging on our environment, by finding ways to reduce this waste, companies will naturally be able to streamline their packaging and production processes and become more efficient while positively increasing their brand image.
Not only that, but keeping up with sustainability will ultimately make it easier for businesses to comply with any future implementation of government regulations.
Staying ahead of the curve will make it easier to comply with legal requirements and prevent inefficient and costly implementations.
Finally, being sustainable leads to increased profits! All the factors mentioned above contribute to an increase in overall profit for your business.
Building a positive brand image attracts more customers and talented employees, leading to more productivity and sales.
Reducing costs by streamlining your processes and minimizing packaging waste makes it cost less to run your business as you become more efficient and utilize fewer resources.
Overall, becoming a sustainable business offers many benefits, so companies shouldn’t shy away from saving the planet!
Access to New Markets
As consumers become more environmentally conscious, they are increasingly looking for products and services that are environmentally friendly and sustainable.
This has led to the emergence of niche markets that specifically cater to environmentally conscious consumers.
For instance, the organic food market, renewable energy market, and sustainable fashion market have all grown significantly in recent years.
By adopting sustainable practices, your business can tap into these niche markets and reach new customers who are specifically looking for sustainable products and services.
This can open up new revenue streams and help your business grow.
In addition, some governments and organizations have policies and initiatives that prioritize sustainable products and services.
For example, some governments provide tax incentives and other benefits to businesses that adopt sustainable practices, and some organizations have sustainability criteria that suppliers must meet to be considered for contracts.
By being sustainable, your business can access these markets and opportunities, which can help you expand your customer base, increase revenue, and establish yourself as a leader in sustainability.
This can be especially important in highly competitive markets where sustainability can provide a unique selling proposition and help your business stand out from the crowd.
Positive Change Starts With Everyone
At the end of the day, the earth is our home, and it reacts to everything we do; change does not happen overnight or with a handful of people.
Companies and consumers must work together and maintain sustainable practices to reduce our environmental footprint, and an excellent place to start is with food packaging waste.
Businesses must streamline their production and source sustainable packaging materials, while consumers must ensure proper disposal of food packaging waste or reuse if possible.
The environmental impact of food packaging play a significant factor in contributing to a suffering planet, but this is an issue that everyone can help mitigate.
Emission of greenhouse gas pollutants, irresponsibly harvesting our natural resources, dumping toxic chemicals, and littered waste is killing our planet.
Not only are these impacts negative to our health, but it also affects the habitats of the animals we share this planet with.
If we do not reduce our environmental footprint, conditions will only worsen, and the consequences of inaction may soon become irreversible.
To ensure a healthy planet for future generations, companies and consumers can no longer let other people push a sustainable initiative; everyone needs to contribute.