With increasing environmental awareness, consumers become more and more aware of the issue of sustainability in food packaging. If you are living according to the permaculture principles, packaging should also be a huge concern to you. Because according to the Emmen MacArthur Foundation, globally only 14% of all plastic packaging is recycled, and 40% of all plastic packaging is disposed on landfills. One third finally ends up in ecosystems, most of it in the ocean.
It has tremendous negative effects on the environment, especially on maritime ecosystems. We all know the pictures of dead birds and fish with their stomach full of plastic, or the seal and turtle stuck in buckets with their heads.
It is clear, that packaging has to become more sustainable. This not simply includes the material which the packaging is made of, but it requires a look into the whole supply chain. To understand what sustainable packaging really is and to reduce its environmental footprint and biological impact, one has to take many different aspects into consideration: used materials, energy efficiency, water use in production, recycled content are just a few.
A solution that might seem too simple, is just less packaging. No packaging at all is, in any case, the most sustainable solution, but most products have to be packed, be it because of hygiene or simply to add shelf life and reduce wastage. But with every reduction of packaging, the environmental impact will be reduced as well. Less packaging means fewer raw materials are being used, and the endless waste ends up in landfills or in the ocean.
Finding ways to decrease the amount of plastic we use might be sometimes a challenge. That’s why we put some tips together for you!
Shopping and bags!
‘Bring your own shopping bag’ is probably one of the most common and easy tips to reduce the use of plastic. But let’s go a bit beyond. So many times, I see people in supermarkets packing fruits and vegetables into small plastic bags before they actually put them into the ‘real’ shopping bag. I ask myself every time: why? The plastic bag does nothing for the veggies, it doesn’t even prevent them from getting smashed or squeezed. So why are you still using them? If you don’t want singles fruits to roll around in your bag, you can simply use reusable fruit nets (you can find them in many online shops!)
Buy in zero waste supermarkets! Another very smart idea is to go shopping in plastic-free or so-called zero-waste supermarkets. Those shops offer food products only on reusable packaging like glass jars. Usually, customers can bring their own storage containers and fill them up with products like pasta, rice, or cornflakes. Those shops usually offer a lot of organic and sustainable products in general, so it’s definitely worth checking them out!
Another trend is packaging materials called bioplastics or degradable plastics. What sounds like a perfect solution at a first glance, plastic that is compostable, and just disappears a few months after disposal, is not as perfect as it might seem. Let’s have a closer look at the different types of those materials:
Bioplastics made from natural materials such as corn starch
The good thing about these: they are generally compostable and can break down in a couple of weeks. They consist of the bioplastic polylactic acid (PLA) which is based on corn starch, and so do not produce a net increase in CO2 when they break down.
The negative side of bioplastics: not all of them will completely break down and might leave microplastics behind. And many will only decompose at high temperatures, and not in garden composts or oceans.
Those kinds of plastics are made from recycled plastics materials rather than raw materials. But what sounds really smart and sustainable first, is not that good after a closer look. Of course, it is good and right to reuse and recycle as much as possible, but there are some problems with recycled plastics. Usually, it is not possible to make the same items out of plastic again. Also, recycled plastics are not automatically better for the environment. To be sure, you need to do a Life Cycle Assessment and calculate the net saving of energy and water, and a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Cardboard, glass and other alternative packaging materials
Glass and metal are certainly two of the options to consider sustainable, even though the production might have negative impacts on the environment, both of them can be reused and recycled infinitely.
Cardboard and paper are two of the most recycled materials one can find. But producing paper has a huge carbon footprint and very high water usage. Sometimes it is hard to track where cardboard comes from, as it is not recycled, it contributes to deforestation. If using these materials, make sure they have a high recycled content.
Edible packaging: Scientists already have developed an edible, biodegradable packaging film that can be wrapped around food to prevent spoilage.
Bamboo is a very fast-growing plant and can be harvested in just three to seven years. It is highly renewable, and, of course, natural. That means Bamboo decomposes completely and does not leave any toxic residues behind. It also is extremely durable, and it can be grown organically and under very dry conditions.
Remember – even if you just do a little, at least you’re doing something. Every piece of plastic that doesn’t end up in the environment is a success!
Franziska Weissoertel is a Permaculture Designer and Marketing Director for Permaculture International College and Permaculture Education.