Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Food packaging less wasteful than none at all!

I wrote once before that the concept of waste has been distracting environmentalist for decades. Today I came across this exceptionally interesting article on food packaging. The main point is that packaging serves an important purpose - to preserve food. The longer food is preserved, the more likely it is to be eaten rather than wasted. Thus, packaging cuts down immensely on food waste.

I do however believe that some packaging, such as the excessive size of cereal boxes to ensure good shelf space, does not always result in benefits for consumers.


  1. It also allows for long distance transporting which is extremely wasteful!

  2. If it didn't travel, who would eat it? Farmers? Food travels because it keeps, and we preserve it so it will travel.

  3. Couldn't you say that food travels also because it is centralised. We have started a large vege garden and while it sure has a long way to go we are already eating from it. No travel time. I still think packaging is wasteful enough. If unprocessed for spoils it is not called waste it is called compost.

  4. My point is the article you referenced accepts that food is globally transported & therefore packaging is good because it creates less "waste" (some may call it compost).

    My question is one of causality - now that we can package, does it mean we transport food further? If so, to me that is wasteful i.e. transport, oil, time, packaging etc.

    It also appears most packaged food is highly processed - processing is energy intensive (let alone unhealthy). Does it mean because we can store packaged food longer, we eat more processed food?

    Not sure if the rebound effect applies here.... may need to do a little more digging....

  5. There is causality both ways. We package food to preserve it, then realise we can transport it further, then realise with a little more packaging we could transport even further and so on. So I agree with your first points including the processing, but add causality in the other direction.

    In rebound effect terms we might, starting at a point in history with little packaging, make the claim that a new packaging/preservation technology will reduce the amount of food waste, thus it is environmentally beneficial as we can consume the same amount of food from less land (because of less uneaten food).

    But of course, the response to this is to place more land under production, as food can now be transported, stored, and traded further afield.

    I find it hard to image a world where we could get away with predominantly locally produced food. In fact, we had that world once (although preserving food has been done since ancient times, with pickling, brewing, etc). The benefits we get from specialisation and centralisation of the food supply, in my opinion, outweigh the environmental cost of packaging.

    The other benefit of packaging and food preservation is the reliability of the food supply. If we had a flood or drought in the local food producing areas we would have to develop packaging and distribution systems from scratch to cover the losses. Whereas we can now simply trade from other areas - rarely is the whole world having a poor farming season.

    These are just some more thoughts. I'm sure there's a long and detailed history of research in this area. Will post more on this topic after reading some more.