food packaging wasteBy Jenny Splitter

Consumers want more from their food packaging, which means clearer recycling rules and  honest information about the sustainability of different packaging materials, agree the panelists for a FIRST session titled “Paving the Way for More Sustainable Food Systems Through Packaging Strategies: Are we there yet?” They also agree that the packaging industry has an opportunity to do much better by consumers, both in making recycling materials more sustainable, and also in simplifying and standardizing how to recycle.

One major challenge for the industry has been that recycling rules aren’t consistent from one municipality to another. When people move to a new city and the new rules aren’t clear, says Jeff Wooster, global sustainability director for Dow Packaging & Specialty Plastics, they often end up tossing it in frustration. Companies can increase the likelihood the package will get recycled by avoiding the use of multiple types of packaging materials for the same product. Different materials can have different recycling rules depending on the locality, which ends up causing a lot of consumer confusion.

It can also be difficult to read the classification on the bottom of the packaging, says Martin Slayne, president of Slayne Consulting, sometimes because it’s a barely perceptible indentation on the package. Providing clear recycling instructions on the packaging itself is one solution. One Chicago-area pizza chain includes these instructions on its pizza boxes, for example.

Several industry coalitions have been working to increase standardization. But the industry can also build consumer confidence by being more transparent about how long it takes different packaging materials to biodegrade, even if that means being honest about a material that isn’t so sustainable. But the food industry should use the most sustainable material available, argues Slayne, which means no more polystyrene since there are viable alternatives.

Another issue with plastic materials is the food safety risks from recycling plastics for reuse as a food container, says Wooster. In order to reuse that packaging, the container must not only be clean but purified and free from contamination. It’s a challenge, he says, but that doesn’t mean the food industry should shy away from it. “It's not our job to complain about the challenges,” he says. “It's our job to either change the system so that we eliminate the challenges or remove that product from the system.”

Wooster encourages the industry to be honest about the difficulties. “Tell people, ‘hey, we still have challenges but we're working on them.’” That helps build credibility.

The pandemic has brought more attention to the way food is packaged, the panelists agree. “The pandemic has given us all time to really think a little bit more about the choices we make, not only in what we're consuming, but what it's packaged in,” says Greg Johnson, director of new business development for Sustana Fibers.


Register for FIRST to view this session and 100+ more—available on demand through Dec. 31, 2021.

Jenny Splitter is a freelance science journalist based in Washington, DC.

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