To truly understand what the most eco-friendly food packaging solution is, we need to assess the packaging from many angles:
- the life-cycle
- the energy used in production
- the energy used in recycling
- the transportation/logistical costs and energy used.
The most common packaging materials currently available on the market at glass, polystyrene, paper/cardboard and plastic.
But, which is not only the most eco friendly but the most fit for purpose food packaging option?
Glass is infinitely recyclable, it is also reusable and has a relatively low energy consumption during recycling phases. So surely it should reign supreme as the go-to eco-friendly packaging material? Well no, glass, sadly, isn’t exactly fit for purpose. It is heavy and breakable and not always ‘food safe’. For the purpose of produce growers who are looking to stack pallets upon pallets of product to be distributed quickly and safely, glass certainly would not be the material of choice. One wrong move and the produce is quickly contaminated with shards of glass. It is also incredibly heavy, requiring additional transportation and logistics costs and therefore increasing the overall carbon footprint of the product. While on the surface some materials might appear to be eco friendly due to a recyclable property it is also important to assess the bigger picture too.
Paper or cardboard packaging certainly has it’s place. The logistics giant Amazon, certainly wouldn’t be where it is today without it. It is also recyclable and compostable. But it isn’t reusable. Nor can 100% of the raw material be recycled therefore, does not enter the realms of the circular economy packaging materials. Cardboard or paper isn’t a sustainable option as we are cutting down trees faster than planting them. It has also been said that paper production accounts for one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. So while it might appear to be an eco friendly option, there is a lot going on with cardboard before the final product reaches our front doors that is harmful to the environment.
Within both the seafood and produce sections, polystyrene has traditionally been the leading product. And it is clear to see why, it has similar reusable properties to that of glass, it also has a low energy consumption during the manufacturing process and it can be recycled. But much like cardboard, not 100% of polystyrene packaging is ever recycled and here is why… When polystyrene is tarnished with fish guts or dirt from produce it cannot be effectively cleaned to be re-used. It also takes up huge amounts of space due to its rigidity and bulkiness. Which in terms of transportation is a bonus, with its protective properties, the product always arrives safely. It just isn’t so great when it is piling up and awaiting collection for specialist recycling. Leading supermarkets are moving away from polystyrene in a bid to reduce their carbon footprint. “20 million polystyrene pizza bases… will be replaced with recyclable alternatives” Sainsburys PLC.
For demonstration purposes, we are excluding hard to recycle or single-use plastic packaging and concentrating on recyclable plastics; to be precise PP5. This is a particular type of packaging material which does appear to come out on top as the true eco friendly packaging material. pp5 is reusable and in some cases, it has been proven to be used up to 20 times before breakage. It is strong and fit for purpose and with regards to the fresh or frozen food sectors, it has a thick thermal barrier ensuring fresher produce for longer. It has a low energy consumption during production and 100% of the raw material can be recycled. It is waterproof and watertight and dirt imperishable. So can be easily cleaned and reused or recycled to form another product. pp5 packaging can also arrive flat-packed. This advantage saves on transportation with 70% more product fitting on a single pallet and with its reusable properties, the number of trips is also reduced, therefore considerably lowering the overall carbon footprint of the product.