Can you imagine a world without packaging? Today’s modern shopper probably could not. Whether it’s the jar that holds peanut butter or the plastic jug that stores milk, some form of packaging—paper, plastic, or metal—always coats the food of the modern consumer. Food packaging has become so ingrained in his eating habits that he cannot remember how he survived without it. Without packaging, there would be no cans to put tomato soup in, no bags for salad, no cardboard for TV dinners, and no Styrofoam cups for instant noodles. In a way, packaging is what makes modern food, modern. A grocery store would hardly be recognizable without all those candy-wrappers, cardboard boxes, and aluminum cans.
Food packaging, however, has not always been so commonplace. Two centuries ago, eggs did not come in cartons, nor did soda in bottles, tuna in cans, cookies in Saran wrap, and bread in aluminum foil. Shoppers of this era did not expect every basic piece of food to come wrapped in packages. Fruits and vegetables were simply sold fresh at farmers markets, milk was distributed in reusable glass bottles, and cooked meals in durable plates. No one could have foreseen the idea of wrapping fresh apples in polystyrene.
Gradually, however, shoppers began to fall in love with packaged food. There are many possible explanations for this rise in popularity. Manufacturers claim that food packaging helps to deliver better food: packaging protects food from physical damage; it seals out air to prevent staleness; it preserves freshness by keeping out insects and microbes; and it keeps portions in a nice serving size for stock-keeping. I suspect, however, that the modern shopper doesn’t choose packaging entirely for reasons of health, hygiene, and quality. This is because most packaging, in fact, is purely cosmetic.
Food packaging could be merely utilitarian, in which case it would simply be functional, colorless, and bland. But it is not. Bread is not wrapped in dull, brown lunch-bags, nor is fruit juice stored in generic plastic bottles. Even the humblest of wrappers contains a colorful potpourri of logos, mascots, slogans, health claims, and celebrities. This is no mere accident, but rather the result of the multi-billion-dollar food-advertising industry (1).
Packaging today has become a form of marketing. The average cardboard box is more about building brand loyalty than it is about storing food. For example, each box of breakfast cereal usually contains two packages: the inner plastic bag, which preserves freshness; and that unnecessary, outer cardboard box. The main function of the outer cardboard is to act as a billboard. For children, it might feature a mascot or celebrity; for adults, a health claim. After all, those omega fatty acids won’t advertise themselves.
In a way, even the functional, inner plastic bag is a marketing tool. Subconsciously, the modern shopper associates plastic bags with quality and freshness. Heavily packaged food appears cleaner, more hygenic, and ultimately, more sophisticated and cultured. Deep down, even grown-up shoppers harbor a childish love for shiny foil, glossy plastic wrap, and colorful logos. It’s the same reason why cookies are individually-wrapped, and why popcorn is encased in fancy tins. Heavy packaging has always been associated with greater elegance and class. It’s no wonder food processors use as much packaging as they can get away with. There may be other methods to preserve food quality, but none that are quite so profitable.
Packaging creates a multitude of environmental problems because modern packaging isn’t made from organic materials. Natural materials like straw, hay, and peanut shells are biodegradable, which means they can be recycled back into the earth. Modern packaging, on the other hand, is made using synthetic materials. These deplete natural resources that can never be replenished, and produce pollution that never degrades.
Plastic, the most common packaging material, provides an excellent example. Although there are a myriad of different plastics, all forms share very common characteristics. All plastics are easily molded, light-weight, durable, cheap, and most importantly, petroleum-based. To produce plastic bags, oil must first be extracted, a process which depletes limited petroleum reserves while damaging aquatic and forest ecosystems.
Once a plastic wrapper has been manufactured, it quickly turn into pollution. Ironically, the very packaging shoppers associate with cleanliness and hygiene quickly becomes a massive source of filth. Whether it’s in the form of a cereal bag, soda bottle, milk jug, or egg carton, plastic packaging turns into garbage at the end of its life-cycle. It often ends up as litter scattered along the road.
The current solution to this pollution problem is to gather up all this spent plastic and toss it into a burial pile, otherwise known as landfill. This removes the eyesore, but it does not address the fact that plastic fails to biodegrade. Most plastics will never be recycled back into the earth. As landfill piles up, these plastics can pose health risks to nearby communities. The same synthetic chemicals used to manufacture the plastics can leach into nearby soil, polluting both land and groundwater.
Recycling this plastic would be an improvement, but this has its share of problems as well. Recycling on a large-scale is a logistical challenge, with the result that recycled plastic might be more expensive than virgin plastic. First, consumers must actively participate in recycling programs (they usually don’t bother; in the USA, for example, only around 1 in 4 plastic bottles are actually recycled (2)). Next, vast fleets of expensive trucks are needed to haul all this rubbish back to costly recycling facilities. These materials must then be sorted, since most facilities can only recycle a handful of the different plastic types. Even of those types that can be recycled, not everything can be reclaimed, and even the fraction that is reclaimed is generally of an inferior quality. In the process, massive amounts of fuel and electricity are consumed. Recycling is definitely better than land-filling, but it’s not as sustainable as it sounds.
Modern civilization could keep drilling for oil and continue producing garbage, but perhaps everyone would be better off without packaging altogether.
After all, life without modern packaging certainly is possible. For millennia, humanity has survived without any of the types of disposable packaging used today. Styrofoam, polyethylene, aluminum cans, and laminated cardboard simply did not exist two hundred years ago.
But even if returning to a package-free food culture would be possible, the real question is whether this would be desirable. Most shoppers believe that it would not. To most consumers, packaging is the very embodiment of modern progress. Shrink-wrap, they argue, has improved modern health by keeping food clean and sanitary. Without it, modern man would revert to a poor, nasty, brutish, and short existence.
These fears are greatly exaggerated. In some cases, in fact, the exact opposite is true. Shoppers who are sincerely concerned for their health should avoid packaging whenever possible, since it turns out that heavy packaging tends to harm more than protect.
For one, packaging itself can actually become a potential source of toxins. A classic example involve packages made with Bisphenol A. Over a million metric tonnes of this chemical was produced globally in the 1980s, which then doubled to over two million tonnes by 2009 (3). The majority went into the production of polycarbonate plastics (used in some baby bottles and water bottles), and a lesser fraction went into the production of epoxy resins (used to line soda cans). It was well-known since the 1930s that Bisphenol A was estrogenic—that is, it could bind to sex hormone receptors that influence development. Despite this knowledge, manufacturers continued using this chemical in food packaging until recent studies demonstrated that the plastic had the potential to leach into food. Researchers concluded that packaging made from Bisphenol A might harm development in children and cause cancer in adults. As a result, many manufacturers have since recalled these plastics and discontinued its further use.
Yet even when packaging does not pose a health risk, the food inside it usually does. Heavily packaged food is usually heavily processed, which can result in Western diseases like obesity and diabetes. Processed food is filled with extra chemicals in the forms of preservatives, sweeteners, food colorings, and flavor additives. To make matters worse, dietary fiber and vitamins are often lost in the process.
Food quality can also suffer in another way. Fresh, unpackaged food often has a short shelf life. Even with refrigeration, ripe fruits and vegetables simply won’t keep for a long time. Packaged food, however, can often be stored for decades, which means that a box of instant noodles could spend spend years in the stockroom before finally being sold. Food that has been packed for freshness, then, may not really be all that fresh.
For most foods, avoiding packaging is simple. Fresh fruit, such as apples and oranges, often have peels which naturally protect them from dirt and microbes. These peels are biodegradable, which means they can be composted after being used up. Many vegetables are also very hardy, so they don’t require much effort to go package-free either. Shoppers should take advantage of natural packaging, like the hard outer skin of squash, the husks of corn shells, or the skins of potatoes. All this fresh produce can be loaded directly into a clean, reusable tote instead of a new plastic bag, without any sacrifice in hygiene.
Fragile foods, like ripe tomatoes and eggs, require some extra forethought. The best packing materials are use old, biodegradable waste products, which are both low-cost and sustainable. Shoppers can use straw, corn husks, lawn clippings, peanut shells, and old newspapers to cushion fragile foods. These materials can then be tossed into a compost bin after use.
Shoppers can also bring their own reusable containers. For example, instead of buying shrink-wrapped rice and beans, I often buy them from bulk bins to save money and use old plastic bags as containers. For fluids like milk, vendors from small farmers markets sometimes let you reuse clean milk jugs. Some coffee shops will even offer discounts for customers that avoid paper cups and instead bring their own reusable mugs. Not only does this avoid waste, it also saves money.
Living package-free is neither time-consuming nor difficult; even a few seconds of effort can make a difference. The real issue, instead, is overcoming the inertia of old cultural attitudes. The challenge rests in the hands of each shopper. I hope he won’t take good advice and treat it the way he treats old food packaging—by throwing it away.
- Over $10 billion dollars each year is spent advertising the food we eat. Consumers Union.org reports that processed food advertising (estimated around $11.26 billion as of 2004) vastly overwhelms advertising for healthy eating ($9.55 million).
- 1.5 billion pounds of plastic bottles were recycled in the USA, but this only accounts for 22% of total production. Where did we trash the other 5.3 billion pounds?
- This Wikipedia entry provided production statistics.
- Photo credits:
Billy Brown, Michelle Tribe, Jayanthi, Samuel C. Blackman,
Julien Menichini, Natalie Maynor, Ian Munroe, Steven Depolo, Laura de Marco, all CC BY.