Wednesday, 22. January 2020

Food packaging: Protective or harmful?

Whether yoghurt, soups or drinks – they are all sold packaged in the supermarket. Overall, almost 90 percent of food products are sold in packaging. This adds up to a great amount: in 2018, more than 1.13 trillion packages were used for food and drinks in the EU.

Packaging should keep our food fresh by protecting it from external influences such as light and oxygen. But at the same time, the material from which they are made is very often harmful to the environment. And packaging causes an enormous amount of waste. So shouldn’t it be abolished completely? This topic is currently the subject of a hot debate. I will take a closer look at both positions.

The environmental sin of plastic

Plastic is one of the most important packaging materials. This is written in the plastic atlas of the Federation for Environment and Nature Protection in Germany. But plastic is extremely harmful to the environment and to ourselves because plastic packaging contains chemical substances which can transfer themselves into our food. If these get into the human body, health damage is to be feared. As a result there is a greater risk of ingesting those chemical substances by consuming food wrapped in plastic packaging.

Plastic waste also finds its way into the oceans, but can’t be completely decomposed there. Marine animals and birds eat small plastic parts because they often think it is food. The waste remains decomposed in their stomach which causes them to starve to death. At the same time, there is a risk that the plastic particles will end up back on the our plates through the food chain. Furthermore the animals can get caught in larger plastic parts – they hurt themselves or die in pain. In the course of a year around 10 million tons of plastic end up in the sea.

It has been recognised that nature protection must be taken seriously and the use of plastic needs to be reduced. So far not only people but also companies start to be more aware of these harmful changes they cause to the environment by overusing plastic – in the retail sector too. Paper bags instead of plastic bags are hanging in vegetable departments as well as at the checkout. The grapes are now available in paper bags rather than plastic bags. Since 2015, Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd have already used around 40,000 tonnes less packaging material, the discounters report. Non-packaging supermarkets are the trend. So something is happening and that is good for the environment. But is it enough to dispense packaging to help the environment?

Remedies for food waste

On the one hand there are tons of saved packaging material. But on the other hand a large amount of food ends up in the bin. According to current statistics from the Federal Environment Agency, food waste sums up to 1,85 million tons, or in other words: one third of all processed food products. This puts a heavy burden on the environment. Because water, energy and agricultural land are wasted unnecessarily if tons of food is thrown away. In addition, more than 900 million people in the world are starving while elsewhere enjoyable food is thrown away.

If food was sold unpackaged, this problem could be worse. Oxygen, moisture, light, ripening gases – packaging can keep these things away from fruit and vegetables. Therefore it is much longer enjoyable. A packaged cucumber for example lasts three days longer than an unpackaged one. One percent more packaging means ten percent less food waste, says Winfried Batzke, Managing Director of the German Packaging Institute.

So packaging is still profitable, the packaging advocates say. In their opinion, the damage should actually be bigger when food goes bad than when it is packaged. Ninety percent of the ecological damage was caused by the product and only ten percent by the packaging.

What is the solution?

A lot of plastic waste on the one hand and food waste on the other: It’s a stalemate. Will it still be good for the environment if plastic is reduced but tons of food is thrown away? Is it necessary to find an alternative to plastic? What are the benefits of other packaging alternatives, such as the coating process, which I have already presented to you in another article? Should we only buy unpackaged food?

Questions to which there is currently no explicit answer. But it is clear that something has to change. What is your opinion on this topic? How can we do better to protect our planet? Feel free to write your opinion in the comments. I would be happy if we discussed this important topic.

Strautmann Umwelttechnik GmbH