Almost everything we eat and drink has been packaged in some way or another. Yet due to the manufacturing process and improper disposal, food packaging has a large carbon footprint. From plastic water bottles and cardboard pizza boxes to individually wrapped snacks, food packaging pollutes our landfills, air, and waterways.
Food packaging is typically designed for single-use and is not always recycled. Once food packaging is disposed of it usually sits in landfills or is incinerated, both of which release harmful greenhouse gasses into the air. But, it’s not just through disposal that food packaging accumulates a large carbon footprint. Manufacturing food packaging materials requires the use of lots of resources like water, energy, and fossil fuels all of which generate harmful emissions.
In order to reduce the carbon footprint of food packaging, it is worth taking a hard look at current food packaging practices to reduce the amount of harmful materials used and incorporate alternative materials into the food packaging process.
Types of Food Packaging
Food packaging covers a wide variety of packaging materials and includes materials like glass, metal, aluminum, plastic, paper, and cardboard. The materials used depend on the food that is being packaged as well as where the food is sold.
Grocery stores typically package food using cardboard, plastic, glass, and metal. Restaurants tend to use aluminum, paper, plastic, and styrofoam for their take-out packaging. Processed foods are the worst culprits when it comes to a large carbon footprint as they are often over-packaged with layers of plastics, cardboard, wax coatings, and more plastics and are not recyclable.
In order to reduce the carbon footprint of food packaging there needs to be a balance between using eco-friendly packaging materials and maintaining proper food safety. Some materials may be better for the environment but not as useful in keeping food fresh so it can be tricky to balance the two.
For a better understanding of the carbon footprint of food packaging, let's look at three common food packaging materials. Check out these articles for more information on plastic packaging and cardboard packaging.
Aluminum is a metal that needs to be mined, generating a lot of waste in the process. However, the main area of concern when it comes to aluminum is the amount of energy it takes to produce the material. This energy-intensive process is one of the reasons aluminum produces 2.5% of the total carbon dioxide emissions annually. While it keeps your leftovers warm, it also heats up the atmosphere, causing harmful gases to accumulate.
Glass is manufactured by melting down natural materials like sand, ash, and limestone. Fossil fuels are burned to achieve a high temperature and emissions from those fuels contribute to its carbon footprint. Glass food packaging is commonly seen in grocery stores and while glass is recyclable in certain places (if cleaned properly), the manufacturing process produces high amounts of greenhouse gasses including carbon dioxide.
Metal packaging, commonly found in grocery stores, is great for keeping foods properly preserved. Metal is also recyclable when done properly (cleaned and brought to the correct recycling plant depending on local regulations). While the manufacturing process, like glass and aluminum, is energy-intensive, when incorporating green energy into the process, there have been significant reductions in metal’s carbon footprint. That, alongside following proper recycling practices, means using metal could help offset your carbon footprint in the food packaging department.
Food Packaging Solutions
Since our food needs to be packaged to stay fresh, how do we combat the large carbon footprint of food packaging? While it would be great if we could all simply grow and buy local food and cut out packaging altogether, that is just not a long-term solution for many people who may not have access to gardens or fresh foods.
Alternative food packaging could help reduce carbon emissions while still keeping food safe and fresh. Recycled cardboard or paper products, metals, recycled glass, and bio-based materials (like sugarcane or hemp) are great alternatives that keep your food fresh and your carbon footprint small.
For more information on how you can reduce your carbon footprint, check out this article breaking down the carbon footprint of other common packaging materials.