When less is more: food packaging takes the heat


Food packagers are developing and using such environmentally friendly packaging as edible protein film for meat, packages that use fewer materials, and paper bags instead of cardboard for fast food.

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By truck and train and boat, food moves in crates and bags and boxes, in steel and aluminum cans, glass and plastic jars and bottles, plastic bowls and plates, and other containers and wrapping–nearly $30 million worth of packaging a year. Shipping is one reason food needs packaging, but there are others. In transit, in the store, or in the kitchen, good packaging protects food from being bruised or crushed, prevents spoilage, and keeps food clean, fresh, and nutritious.

Cold cereal, for instance, comes in a bag inside a cardboard box. The box prevents crushing; the bag keeps out air and moisture that destroy nutrients such as vitamin C and the B-complex vitamins. A wax coating on an apple or a cucumber, on the other hand, holds moisture in to keep the apple or cucumber crisp and fresh.


Recently, a Department of Agriculture researcher developed an edible film for oranges and other produce that does even better. It keeps produce fresh longer at room temperature, and it holds the flavor in. Unlike wax, this film washes off. And at Michigan State University, food scientists have developed an edible protein film for fresh meats to keep juices from leaking out, which helps prevent spoilage and nutrient loss.

Quick and Easy, But . . .

Many heat-and-eat convenience foods come with a lot of packaging–packaging for the microwave, the freezer, the pantry shelf, or the refrigerator. Consider the frozen entree in a plastic dish, covered with foil or plastic wrap, inside a box, with more wrapping around it.

Even fresh meat and fish in the supermarket come ready-packaged, in a paper or plastic tray covered with a clear plastic wrapping. It’s quicker and cheaper than having people behind the counter who cut meat or fish to order and wrap it in paper while you wait.

Some of this packaging raises questions. The handy little beverage box, for instance, saves energy because it’s lightweight, cube-shaped for better packing, and doesn’t need refrigeration, even with milk inside. It’s outlawed in Maine, however, because its six layers of paper, plastic, and aluminum foil are too hard to recycle. The waxed paper milk carton can’t be recycled, but–unlike glass and plastic–it protects milk from losing nutrients that are destroyed by light. The six-ring plastic yoke for soft drink cans is a real problem. Left on the beach or in the water, it can strangle fish, seabirds, and seals. Some states now require photodegradable yokes, which turn brittle and break easily when exposed to the sun. It’s still a good idea, however, to cut the yoke apart before you put it in the garbage.

Packaging Becomes Garbage

Our throwaway wrappings are part of a virtual tidal wave of solid waste. In 1986, we sent nearly 91 million tons of trash to municipal dumps; by the year 2000, the total is expected to reach 171 million tons. And experts tell us there’s no easy way to deal with all of it. Here are the choices:

Dump it. We’re running out of places for dumping. By the year 2000 we will have used up 80 percent of available space for landfills–what we used to call garbage dumps. About 65 percent of what’s put there is biodegradable, but it doesn’t disintegrate as fast as we once thought. Researchers who dug up a 20-year-old Chicago landfill found recognizable remains of old hot dogs, and newspapers that were still readable after 20 years. Experts disagree on whether to wall dumps in and forget them, or add moisture and bacteria to speed up disintegration. Other problems: Leakage can contaminate underground water, and nobody wants a new dump in the neighborhood.

Burn it. Incineration can eliminate 80 percent of the solid waste and provide energy in the form of heat. It can produce toxic gases, however, and doing it safely and correctly is expensive. And nobody wants an incinerator in the neighborhood, either.

Recycle it. We have the technology to recycle almost anything, but not enough markets for recycled materials. Recycling 25 percent of solid waste is probably the most we can hope for. Recycling aluminum cans is the most successful; glass containers can be reused or recycled. Recycled paper is used for most cereal boxes and some grocery bags. Plastic has been recycled only for non-food uses because of the risk of contamination, but some soft drink companies are trying techniques for recycling bottles that eliminate contamination.


Reduce it at the source. It’s better and cheaper. One soft drink company, for instance, cut aluminum cans from 2.5 ounces in 1961 to half an ounce today.

A redesigned package for pre-cooked, frozen meals cut package weight more than 25 percent by replacing a plastic dome and aluminum foil with a single thin wrapping.

A national fast-food company is trying a series of changes, including unbleached paper bags for food, a paper bag instead of a carboard holder for french fries, permanent dispensers instead of disposable packets for mustard and catsup, and a composting program that uses egg shells and other food waste to enrich the soil. If it all works, it could cut their solid waste by 80 percent.

And researchers are finding surprising uses for what used to be food waste. Ground pecan shells, for example, can be used instead of chemical fillers to strengthen plastic and to make it easier to recycle.

Be a Savvy Shopper

Labels that say the product is environment-friendly aren’t enough.

* Most supermarkets now recycle paper and plastic shopping bags. You can reuse them and return them for recycling. Or use your own canvas or net bags. Don’t use plastic tear-off bags for produce, such as bananas, that doesn’t need them.

* Buy large-size canned or frozen foods, cereals, and packaged cookies. For brown-bagging, put individual servings in your own reusable containers.

* Buy more unpackaged fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer heavily processed and packaged convenience foods.

* When there’s a choice, choose the product with less packaging. Instead of cooking oil spray in a pressurized can, for instance, buy a bottle of vegetable oil, put a few drops on a piece of waxed paper, and spread it in the cooking pan yourself.

You can make a difference.

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