Plastics 101

Plastic Packaging Has the Power to Solve Food Waste Challenges

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In 2018, Americans threw away more than 84 billion pounds of food, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates, which have steadily increased since the 1960s. This heavy weight – the equivalent of 115 Empire State Buildings – makes the United States a world leader in wasted food, which according to the EPA accounts for about 24 percent of waste in U.S. landfills.

Food waste not only effects businesses and consumers, but also impacts our environment. When food is lost through spoilage or other issues along the supply chain, the water used to cultivate it, energy used to produce and store it, and materials used to package it also go to waste. Emissions generated in its transportation have added to air pollution.  Wasted food goes beyond the physical product thrown away to the sum of the parts, which amounts to much more than the baseline weight of food wasted each year.

Food spoilage or spillage causes most U.S. food waste, both before products make it to grocery stores and after consumers purchase them. This is because inefficient packaging techniques fail to keep food protected and fresh after harvest and during transport and sales. Many of these issues can be solved with innovative packaging solutions designed by the plastics industry.

Plastic Packaging as a Solution

Research points to plastic packaging as a tool in the fight against waste.

According to a study on food waste by the food rescue group Second Harvest, food product shelf life can be significantly extended by packaging items differently or by changing the design or the materials in which products are packaged. Innovative plastic packaging solutions that extend product shelf life and keep food fresher can help reduce waste and keep valuable food products out of the landfill.

According to a report by Circular Matters, a consulting firm specializing in sustainability and the circular economy, and Winpak Inc., a North American plastics packaging company, innovative plastic packaging options also decrease transportation costs and require less energy to produce than alternative packaging. Furthermore, plastic packaging offers features like zippers, spouts, and heat-in-package material that ensure products can be fully utilized.

The  Circular Matters and Winpak Inc. report shows flexible plastic packaging already accounts for nearly 20 percent, or more than $33.5 billion, of the packaging materials market in the United States. More than 60 percent of flexible plastic is used for food and beverage products alone – and this share is expected to grow. Plastic packaging solutions that decrease spoilage and utilize innovative features to ensure that all food is used can help solve food waste challenges.

Global Trends In Plastic Packaging

Without considering growing needs for plastic packaging due to the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for flexible plastic packaging is expected to increase by over 3 percent per year for the next five years. Flexible plastic packaging is most utilized by the food and beverage sectors, followed by the medical and pharmaceutical sectors. However, growing demand is leading to a number of new challenges around how to deal with flexible plastic packaging after it’s used.

Innovations and Solutions for Used Plastic Packaging

While innovative plastic packaging can help solve food waste challenges, it is also important to ensure that increased packaging use does not result in more plastic waste going to landfills or the environment. Governments, consumers, and industry need to work together to ensure that these growing product chains can be recycled and repurposed into new products. Winpak, for example, recently announced a new line of sustainable packaging options aimed at making plastic packaging easier to recycle with machinery and technology already available.

Advanced recycling options are also improving to increase recycling rates. Advanced recycling allows single-use plastic packaging to be broken down into original polymers and reused indefinitely, similar to how virgin resin is utilized.

Additionally, local efforts to increase drop boxes for single-use plastics at grocery stores is helping to increase recycling for this type of material. While these efforts are helpful, governments and industry should continue to work together to ensure that flexible plastic packaging is recovered, recycled, and reused so that it can be the best solution to food waste in the United States.

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