In these days of environmental focus, nothing seems to arouse the passions like food and medical packaging. Unfortunately, much of the "bad news" that circulates on the topic is based on myth and hearsay. Maybe some of the following thoughts will help to correct some of the commonly quoted inaccuracies for your packaging-material customers and their consumers.
Myth 1: Food Packaging is filling our landfill sites
Publicly available information suggests that the total volume of waste produced from all sources in the UK per year is about 300 million tons. Only some 10% of this is accounted for by household waste - about 27 million tons. Building sites, as one good point of comparison, produce about four times as much rubbish as households. Packaging of all types represents some 4.5 million tons of household waste, and the amount actually due to food packaging is likely to be no more than 1 million tons. The weight of food packaging per person is less then 44 lbs per year.
Compare that 44 lbs of packaging with the 220 lbs per person per year of food waste that is put straight into the wastebin, and you begin to see that packaging is actually the least of our worries. The environmental impact of the food waste is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of this is also dumped into landfills. Food going to landfills will gradually rot and produce methane - a gas of significantly greater concern regarding global warming than CO2.
Myth 2: Everything is over-packaged
While there may be some mileage in this statement in certain sectors, food is unlikely to be one of them. The protection offered to food products by packaging provides a significant benefit, as illustrated by statistics from the World Health Organisation, which suggest that food waste in the Third World can be as high as 50%, while in developed economies as low as 3%. Much of this difference is due to good quality packaging. Under-packaging is 10 times worse for the environment that the same amount of over-packaging, as 10 times more energy and material resources go into the production of goods and food than into their packaging.
Additional fuel in favor of sensible packaging is provided by the Cucumber Growers' Associated, which showed that unwrapped cucumbers are unsaleable after three days. Plastic wrapping keeps them fresh for 14 days and untouched by dirty hands.
Cleaner and fresher produce and foodstuffs less likely to be damaged during transportation equals product less likely to be thrown straight into the wastebin. Smarter shopping and cooking, and more focus on producing less food waste is far more likely to provide the answer to environmental issues than simply reducing packaging.
Myth 3: Cardboard packaging destroys trees
An unfortunate perception of the print and packaging world is that it "eats trees." In fact, of the world consumption of wood only 12% is actually used for the manufacture of paper and board, and of this, just one tenth is used for cartons. Over half the cartons used in Europe are manufactured using recovered fiber from waste paper.
In Europe, over 90% of the wood needed by the paper and board industry comes from European forests, and responsible packaging producers ensure that their purchases are made from FSC- and PEFC-certified suppliers, which means that any new wood used has come from responsibly managed forests. Overall there are more trees planted than felled in Europe, and as forests absorb CO2 they combat greenhouse gases, and therefore have a positive effect with regard to climate change.
Myth 4: Burying plastic is harmful to the environment
OK, time for a bit of a controversial thought now. Anything that is taken to landfill and rots will give off methane - fact! Methane, as already mentioned, is a significantly harmful gas in environmental terms, and is the probably the weakness of the argument for so called "degradable packaging." While no one likes the idea of burying plastic, it will not rot, and therefore represents less of a climate-change issue than burying food waste or even paperboard and paper (which will also rot, but should, of course, be recycled instead). This text is not advocating burying plastics - just pointing out that actually in some ways it's not as bad for the environment as burying other things.
Myth 5: Not enough packaging is being recycled
This might appear to be another controversial comment to describe as a myth, but the statement does require further analysis to extract the real truth. Some packaging materials are more difficult to recycle than others, and some are particularly expensive or energy-inefficient to recycle. Generally speaking, cartonboard is easy to recycle, and an ever increasing percentage of the population is doing so on a daily basis. Boxes and cartons are easy to disassemble and place into the recycling bin for collection, as is probably typical across much of the country. Paperboard that is not recycled will at least compost easily. More cartonboard/paper is recycled than any other packaging material. Once recent claim suggested that recycled waste paper represented around 63% of the fiber used to produce paper and board in the UK.
- Food packaging represents a small fraction of UK waste
- Food waste is significantly higher in terms of volume
- Food waste is also significantly more damaging to the environment
- Good packaging helps to prevent more waste
- Paperboard packaging is produced from sustainable resources
- Paperboard packaging is easy to recycle, and is being recycled