Intelligent Plastics Packaging
"Intelligent" plastic packaging is packaging that is highly purposed and carefully engineered in design to achieve a very specific and targeted function. Its primary purpose is to protect our health - to safeguard against food poisoning - and to minimize food wastage.
Life Cycle Impacts of Plastic Packaging Compared to Substitutes in the United States and Canada: Theoretical Substitution Analysis (2018). The study concludes that replacing plastic with alternative materials in packaging applications would cause increases in energy use, water consumption and solid waste, as well as increase greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), acidification, eutrophication and ozone depletion. The report focused on six packaging categories: caps and closures, beverage containers, stretch and shrink film, carrier bags, other rigid packaging, and other flexible packaging
Plastic Packaging and Preventing Food Waste
Wasted food is a larger problem than many realize and that many are concerned about.
While we initially think of all the money that is wasted the harmful impact of wasted food on the environment is huge.
Let’s explore that link between wasted food and the environment and why proper packaging—such as modern plastic containers, bags, and wraps—can play such an important role in preventing wasted food.
Scope & Impact
According to UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme):
- Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.
- Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).
- The amount of food lost or wasted every year is equivalent to more than half of the world's annual cereals crop.
- Food loss and waste also amount to a major squandering of resources, including water, land, energy, labour and capital and needlessly produce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change.
Imagine for a moment all the time, energy, and resources involved in growing, protecting, delivering, preparing, and serving our food. And then imagine simply throwing away up to 40 percent of it. And then think about the accompanying impact on the environment (not to mention the people who need it).
So what’s that got to do with plastic packaging? Well, it appears that many people are not aware of the role packaging plays in preventing food waste.
Here are a few points to consider:
- Proper packaging is a wise investment because it saves resources. “People are seldom aware of the stresses and strains that a product has to survive, so they don’t think about how it needs to be protected,” said a spokesperson for INCPEN, the Industry Council for Research on Packaging and the Environment. “One of INCPEN’s roles is to explain what packaging does. A telling fact is that ten times more resources—materials, energy, water—are used to make and distribute food than are used to make the packaging to protect it.” So when we waste food, we may be wasting 10 times more resources than those used to make the packaging that protects it. That hits the environment hard.
- A study in Europe called How Packaging Contributes to Food Waste Prevention finds that packaged fresh goods have a smaller environmental footprint than unpackaged food (even if the packaging is not recycled). The study finds that proper packaging results in less greenhouse gas emissions. Even though more packaging is being used, less food is being wasted, leading to a lower overall carbon footprint. The study’s project leader said: “Food packaging can make an important contribution to environmental protection, especially if it is the right packaging for the right application.”
- A review of packaging that reduces food waste by EUROPEN (The European Organization for Packaging and the Environment) concludes: “Packaging is part of the solution to tackle food waste. Packaging prevents food spoilage, ensures food quality and safety along the supply chain and at home, informs consumers on how to use and store packaged food products, increases shelf-life and provides portion sizes answering the multiple needs of consumer lifestyles and demographic changes.”
Plastic Packaging’s Role
Packaging in general does to help reduce food waste and to lighten the load on the environment. How does plastic packaging help?
Plastic packaging’s inherent characteristics—lightweight yet tough—result in a lighter environmental footprint than alternatives. That’s a great start, but to protect and deliver food to us safely, packaging needs to provide various barriers to oxygen, light, temperatures, moisture, microbes, critters, and dirt. That’s precisely where plastic packaging also shines. Here are a few notable examples:
- Ultrathin plastic film helps block transmission of oxygen, increasing shelf life of fresh meats to 21 days or more, and plastic vacuum packaging prevents discoloration of meats and extends shelf life 10 times longer than store-wrapped meat, resulting in 75 percent less food waste.
- High-tech food pouches are made with super-thin layers of plastic and other films that work together to protect food and keep it fresher longer.
- “Active” plastic packaging can help preserve food freshness by various means, such as capturing a reduced-oxygen air mixture in the package, controlling the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and incorporating antimicrobials.
- Factory-sealed plastic containers and bags help preserve the flavour, texture, and nutrients of food by locking out air, preventing absorption of nasty odours and flavours, and averting “freezer burn,” all of which lead to food waste.
- Why on earth wrap a cucumber or an apple in plastic film? Because it can greatly increase shelf life to help reduce food waste.
So as we work to prevent wasted food, to save money or to help the environment, let’s remember how plastic (and other) packaging actually can help us do both. Plastic packaging actually can be part of the solution.