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Sustainable Consumption Institute

The wider environmental effects of food and drink packaging

Cary Monreal Clark discusses the wider environmental effects of food and drink packaging in his latest blog.

Packaging has received bad press for a long time. Some readers may remember campaigns like the “McToxics” in the US, which succeeded in eradicating McDonalds’ polyfoam clamshell packaging used to wrap hamburgers. Others might recall concerns over the growing use of landfill or images of birds strangled by beer tops and plastic bags. Such images and events have fuelled anger with what many still believe to be over-packaged foods .

The packaging industry and its representatives are attempting to change perceptions about packaging and its environmental implications by highlighting developments that have significantly improved packaging’s environmental impact. For instance, the recovery of packaging has improved at both commercial and household levels as have recycling capabilities in many local areas.

The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN) provides some encouraging figures for household waste: of a total of 5.8 million tonnes of waste collected from households in 2013, 1.5 million tonnes were sent for materials recycling and 1.3 million tonnes sent for composting. The amount of household waste sent to landfill or incineration has also reduced by 5% since 2012. The Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement in the grocery sector, has also led to a decrease in the amount of packaging used. At the same time a statutory ‘producer responsibility’ regime now places a legal responsibility on businesses who make or use packaging to ensure a proportion of the packaging they place on the market is recovered and recycled. As a result of these interventions 67.1% of waste packaging was recovered in the UK in 2011, exceeding the packaging recovery targets of 60% set by the European Commission in the European Waste Framework Directive.

In addition, technical improvements in packaging such as light-weighting have also contributed to packaging’s improved environmental performance. And any debate over packaging’s green credentials must acknowledge packaging’s role in minimising food waste in the supply chain and at home . In highlighting these arguments the packaging industry is hoping consumers will view packaging in a more positive light (see the recommendations from the recent Consumer Attitudes to Food Waste and Food Packaging report).

However such arguments fail to recognise the wider role of packaging in shaping unsustainable socio-technical systems of provision and patterns of consumption. My recent doctoral research paid particular attention to the impacts of food and drink packaging innovations on mobility. The role that packaging plays in moving food is obvious. Packaging protects and preserves food during distribution, which in 2010 represented approximately 24% of total goods transported by road in the UK. Less obvious, however, is the role packaging plays in shaping the movement of people.

One way in which packaging shapes human mobility is through reconfiguring routines of shopping. For instance, packaging and its barcodes underpin the complex logistics systems that make possible the out-of-town supermarket and the CO2 emissions generated from the shopping trip.

Packaging also converts food into a convenience device often used to alleviate time pressures or because people are some distance from where food can be stored and prepared. Data from focus groups with workers from London and Newcastle Upon Tyne, exploring the use and consumption of packaged convenience foods ‘on the go’, have shown this to be the case. The preparation of lunch and/or the consumption of breakfast in the morning had to fit into and compete with a range of other activities during an often rigid time-slot between getting up and starting work. Other activities include showering, getting ready and, of course, the daily commute. The purchase and consumption of packaged breakfast and lunch convenience foods made food practices more flexible and thus relaxed time pressures created by the temporal and spatial rigidity of these other activities.

While the consumption of convenience foods can certainly be viewed as an effect of time pressures and increased daily travel it may also influence and exacerbate these trends. As breakfast and lunch become more flexible other activities can be included in the morning routine, such as going to the gym before work, which might increase the numbers of trips taken or miles travelled. Similarly, flexible food practices mean that more time is freed for existing activities, like travelling to work. And while decoupling food from specific places like the home might seem at first glance to reduce mobility by eliminating the need to make a trip home for lunch, it may also, over time, encourage people to live further from work. Crucially, though, packaging makes possible the convenience food system and the practices that surround it. Indeed, food packaging is an important enabling component of changes in patterns of everyday mobility which have led to growing transport-related CO2 emissions. In drawing attention to the complex links between packaging and everyday mobility we are invited to reconsider the idea that packaging is an environmentally benign technology just because we have managed the waste and recovery problem.