We have a long history of putting food in containers to protect it before we consume it. A key feature has been the extension of quality and shelf life, which facilitated the movement of goods across greater distances and reduced consumer visits to shops. Packaging has also played an active role for over a century in product differentiation and for small items, theft prevention. Historically, technological innovation has often been associated with the military, both naval and land operations. Post WWII saw significant packaging shifts away from paper, cardboard, glass and metals to different kinds of plastic. About 40% of all plastics produced since the 50s are used for packaging and of this, 41% is primary food packaging, so total food system plastic use (including secondary and tertiary packaging) would be even higher (see below, and Yates et al., 2019). Since then, certain packaging has probably facilitated the consumption of convenience and unhealthy foods and beverages, eg. PET plastic and soda pop, takeout containers and junk food (see Risch, 2009; Relton et al., 2012).
A tension has existed for years between using packaging to reduce food waste and not wasting the food packaging itself (and the resources to produce it) by being excessive. Historically many things have been over-packaged for fear of spoilage and waste, exacerbated by construction of long distance supply chains that created more opportunities for spoilage. Some even argue that reducing food waste will require more packaging rather than less. This argument has been used to justify increasing research, development and corporate expenditure on more and more technologically sophisticated packaging. All this, of course, is very beneficial to the packaging industry and a key part of their lobbying strategy with governments. But food system transformation, as described on this site, creates the possibility of less food and packaging waste at the same time and that is the context for this section. The longer many foods are in transit or on the shelf, the more transfers of gases, water vapour and aromas occur and the entry of spoilage agents change the quality of the product. In theory, many things require less or different packaging when the space between production and consumption is reduced. How food safety problems have increased with greater food movement and packaging has been documented (Waltner-Toews, 1992). In this sense, the packaging story is deeply interconnected with issues of distancing, product homogenization, the one-stop shopping stock up, consumer deskilling and convenience in the kitchen, and quick service restaurants. These issues are addressed in many parts of this site. The safety of the components of packaging materials are addressed in Goal 4 (Food additives, processing aids and packaging materials).
The other very significant historical influence on this realm is the settler extractive economy (including forestry, aluminum, steel, and petrochemicals). Roughly half of all packaging sales are for food packaging (Marsh and Bugusu, 2007), so the food system is a major component of the packaging-related extractive economy. Legal impediments to extraction have always been minimized and that now haunts waste management policy and practice. Although largely beyond the scope of this site, since food and food packaging are such significant parts of the overall waste stream, changing food packaging is intertwined with efforts to reduce extraction.
Complicating this story is the packaging industry itself, a multi-billion dollar sector with significant economic clout and political influence. Most of the strategies outlined here are offered through a food system lens, though other analysts and activists have targeted the packaging industry directly. That is also beyond the scope of this section.
However, it is clear that packaging is important and that calls for across the board elimination of packaging are both infeasible and in many cases counter-productive because they can lead to both increased food safety and environmental problems (cf. NZWC, 2020). A more nuanced approach to the transition is set out here.
Packaging at different stages of food supply chains
Consumers, of course, think primarily of the packaging of the food they buy at retail, but packaging (broadly defined) is used at all stages of the food system, from inputs, farm / fishery, processor and distributor, restaurant and food service, to retail. The main packaging materials are made from: ceramics, glass, metal (primarily steel, sometimes with tin laminate, and aluminum, with magnesium and manganese sometimes added to the aluminum), paper, paperboard, cardboard, wax, wood, plastics (primarily polypropylene [PP] and polyethylene [PE] for pliable films and materials, polyethylene terephthalate [PET] for fibers and drink bottles, polystyrene [PS] for packing material, processed and takeout food containers), fibres (natural and synthetic), inks for printing, and combinations of all these materials (multimaterial packaging, often involving plastic and metallic liners). Each material has advantages and disadvantages related to the lifecycle of the product. However, most firms are not basing their packaging decisions on full lifecycle cost accounting, in part because pricing signals in the market are distorted in ways that prioritize convenience, cultural and sanitary acceptability and product marketing. Put differently, the packaging industry is riddled with market failure. Firms are not paying the real extraction and end of life management costs of their products.
The packaging industry talks of primary, secondary and tertiary packaging. Primary packaging is in direct contact with food. Secondary is for an additional layer of protection for bulk movement and selling, creating a stock taking unit (SKU) or to facilitate branding. Tertiary is for business to business transit (aggregating multiple SKUs), including pallets, shrink wrap, packing materials, and large cardboard boxes containing smaller cardboard boxes, or large equipment and parts.
Some more specific examples follow for each stage in food supply chains, although many types of packaging involve multiple links in the chain. For example, packaging employed at processing, often ends up being waste at retail, food service and the household. They are categorized here, however, based on where the main manufacturing or use occurs.
Inputs - Pesticide containers; Fertilizer bags and totes; Feed, seed and grain bags; fishing lure and bait containers; Animal health product packages; Machinery maintenance products; drums.
Farm (see Cleanfarms.ca) - Plastic mulch; Greenhouse film; Nursery containers; Bale wrap; silage bags; Twine; irrigation piping and trickle tubes, packing crates, plastic covers and tarps
Fishery - Gear, traps, rope, nets, boat maintenance products and their packaging
Processing - Thousands of packaging materials are in contact with food, including controlled atmosphere gases, plastic, glass, paper, cardboard and metal containers, lids, plates, bowls, trays, pouches, bags, glues, foils, creams, films, coatings, liners, pads, adhesives, labels, fabrics, sticks, skewers, picks, utensils. Tertiary packing includes shipping containers, bags, tags, wraps, netting
Distributors - Are usually passing on goods, although sometimes they do some disaggregating and repackaging, so they would use materials similar to processors.
Cafes, restaurants and food service - Fine dining operations would receive goods from farmers and manufacturers and then dispose of the packaging materials in which the foods came. Quick service / grab and go / takeout operations would have their products wrapped in plastic, paper or aluminum foil, placed in cardboard, plastic or styrofoam containers, and put into paper and or plastic bags. Take-out foods may include plastic cutlery, wooden chop sticks, napkins, condiments in small plastic pouches, and straws.
Supermarkets - Grocery bags, produce bags, paper bags, deli counter and grab and go packaging (like quick service restaurants, plastic cups, straws, utensils, takeout containers).
Household - cooking and consumption equipment and packaging, storage containers, bags and wraps, compost and food waste bags and containers
Current benefits and problems of packaging
Packaging is both boon and bane. Juggling the benefits and problems has always been part of the process, but the balance has increasingly shifted towards problems, particularly environmental ones. Packaging improvements have indisputably lengthened shelf - life, reduced many food safety risks, tampering and theft, and facilitated traceability. Many previously common bacterial and food contamination problems are far less frequent now. The benefits to public health and food access have been enormous. Eating out, especially while travelling, has become much more convenient. Packaging technology has helped reduce costs for manufacturers at all levels of the food system, in earlier periods making inputs and food more affordable and accessible. Product appeal has been enhanced and information has been much easier to convey, including nutritional information. Transportability has been facilitated, leading to greater variety of foods on the shelves. Many of these benefits are accentuated during emergencies and crises, typified by the call from many in the food industry for more packaging during Covid-19.
But at some point post-WWII, we crossed a threshold whereby increased benefits measured less favourably against increased problems. In other words, packaging innovations produced more marginal benefits at greater environmental costs, and the aggregated and cumulative negative impacts grew exponentially, both in the extraction of resources to make an increasingly wide range of food packaging, and the back-end waste management. The shift from multi-use to single use packaging was a significant part of this shift. The ability to manage such a diverse array of materials, uses, sizes, and lifecycles has been compromised by that very variety. Essentially, we don't have the skill to manage the complexity of the system we've created. It represents significant regulatory failure that such complexity was allowed to occur, often to accommodate industry demands for increased product differentiation and marketing. The movement to a wide array of plastics and multi-material products has been particularly problematic on the environmental front. As discussed under Jurisdictions, much of this is minimally regulated, the false presumption being that the market would effectively allocate resources to the most appropriate ends. But since the market is largely incapable of accounting for the environmental damage it generates (negative externalized costs), this has not happened. Because we don't have the skills to manage such complexity, the packaging system will have to be simplified.
Related to this management deficiency, we haven't aligned packaging materials with their best uses that optimize multiple variables. Obviously, every packaging material has environmental costs and different food safety dimensions, meaning that we should be aligning use with the full range of packaging properties, especially for primary packaging. This is akin to the idea in energy use that we should align energy quality with use. In energy, it is very inefficient to use high quality electricity for general space heating. In packaging, does it really make sense to use very expensive aluminum for canned cream corn? The embedded energy in the can is astronomical compared to the energy and nutritional value of the product. Unfortunately, Canada's regulatory approval processes do not account for these alignment issues, leaving it largely to food companies to determine what materials they use for what uses, without consideration of the wider environmental implications.
Although packaging innovation is sometimes lauded for enhancing product appeal, it can also facilitate waste and poor quality. Perhaps the best example is bundling loose fruits and vegetables into bags so that consumers can't pick and choose. Such bagging, as with unit packaging in many other goods, essentially transfers the waste from the packing house, processor or retail store to the household. Such packaging can also make the customer buy more than needed, resulting in waste (see Goal 5, Reducing Food Waste for more on the challenges of minimizing food waste). As such, a key feature of packaging innovation (taken up later in Solutions) is designing for food waste reduction which for some food categories can have a significant positive impact on environmental performance (cf. Heller et al, 2018). A critical consideration, then, is the relationship between the environmental impact of food waste vs. the impact of the packaging itself, and there is no point reducing packaging that results in more food waste and negative environmental impacts (NZWC, 2020).
Most packaging has significant environmental implications. Most packaging material and manufacturing rely extensively on fossil fuels (particularly natural gas) as feedstock. Feedstocks for plastic alone represent about 4% of total fossil fuel production and manufacturing another 3-4% of total fossil fuel production (Hopewell et al., 2009). This means that food packaging manufacture is a significant user of non-renewable energy and GHG emissions, roughly 20% of this total used for plastics (derived from estimates by Yates et al., 2019). Glass and aluminum manufacturing require significant energy, particularly electricity, with their associated emissions. Paper mills use a lot of energy and water, with production of toxic wastewater. In the US, some 63% of municipal solid waste ending up in landfill is packaging materials, including food packaging Most food packaging can take from 50-450 years to degrade, with the breakdown products themselves often toxic (Foodprint). Presumably numbers are comparable in Canada.
Some 4.8–12.7 Mt year−1 of plastics entered oceans as macroscopic litter and microplastic particles in 2010 (Jambeck et al., 2015) and options for removal are very limited. A wide range of lethal and sublethal negative effects on ocean organisms have been identified, with effects moving up food chains to humans. Since the implementation of the ban on releases of plastics at sea (MARPOL, adopted in 1973 but not fully implemented till 1988), some 80% of plastic now enters the ocean from the land (Walker and Xanthos, 2018), transported to oceans via ports, rivers, wastewater outflows, and wind or tides. Although these shipping agreements are far from perfect, they represent more progress than exists in terrestrial pollution reduction systems (Xanthos and Walker, 2017). There is still, however, significant loss of plastic fishing gear at sea (known as ghost gear). Effects, both acute and chronic, on marine organisms are related to ingestion and entanglement. Plastics are often themselves toxic and can also adsorb other pollutants, adding to their negative impacts. Microplastics are believed to have negative effects on feeding and reproduction (fecundity and offspring quality) (Worm et al., 2017). Plastics are also widely dispersed across lakes with microplastics now sometimes at higher levels than in oceans (Helmore, 2023).
Plastics also have negative impacts on terrestrial organisms, from birds to micro-organisms (Foodprint). For example, macroplastics can lodge in the alimentary canals of birds assuming it is food. Plastic mulch used on farms can affect soil organisms when it breaks down (Steinmetz et al., 2016).
According to Greenpeace, the top 5 plastics polluting companies in the world are all primarily food and beverage firms. 90% of Canada's plastic is not recovered (Government of Canada, 2019). A one-day beach cleanup (World Beach Day) organized by Greenpeace Canada in 2018 found that almost half of the branded plastic on the beaches was from 5 firms: Nestlé, Tim Hortons, PepsiCo, the Coca-Cola Company and McDonald's, primarily as food wrappers, plastic bottles and caps, cups and lids, shopping bags, straws, stirrers, utensils and containers (Chung, 2018). In recent years, significant volumes of plastics and other recycled materials were sent to China for reprocessing, but much of that market was eliminated in 2018 when China prohibited import of 24 categories of recycled materials, including 8 kinds of plastic. Costs of recycling have increased by as much as 40% as a result (Lewis and Hayes, 2019). It appears now that manufacturers are targeting Africa for dumping plastics (Tabuchi et al., 2020). Plastic recycling has failed in Canada. In many ways, this failure is emblematic of what happens when decision makers are ecologically illiterate and fail to implement systems that respect ecological principles. The system was poorly set up at the beginning because it did not follow an ecological approach to waste management and the 5R framework (see Conceptual Frameworks). In many provinces, the strategy essentially was to generate more waste so it could be recycled, assuming that markets for recyclables would expand, and that this market would make municipal recycling systems manageable financially. While this was true for some higher value recyclables, such as aluminum, it was not necessarily for lower value and more complex items, including many plastics. Chung (2018) identified 10 problematic materials for municipal recycling. Of these, 9/10 are used in food and beverage products, including laminate pouches, shrink wrap on plastic bottles, and takeout coffee cups. The loss of recycling markets in Asia has created a significant problem. So now we essentially have the worst of all worlds - too many materials, extracted at too high an environmental cost, with recycling systems that don't really work, resulting in significant amounts of potentially recyclable materials in landfill or incinerated.
Packaging also has a long history of contributing to human health problems, most famously mercury and lead used in early cans that leached into food. Current concerns focus primarily on plastics and additives used in plastic packaging, including bis-phenol A (BPA), phthalates, and nonylphenol (see also Goal 4, Food additives). Macroplastics when ingested may harm gut linings (Yates et al., 2019). Microplastics have been found extensively in human organs during autopsies (Thompson, 2020). Plastic additives are implicated in hormone disruption (Halden, 2010). Although not convinced from its scientific review that such additives are a hazard for the general population, Health Canada has added BPA to its CEPA toxic list and prohibits, since 2010, polycarbonate baby bottles containing BPA. Many companies subsequently removed BPA and phthalates from a wider range of products, perhaps in anticipation of consumer backlash and more widespread restrictions. There are also numerous indirect pathways to plastic ingestion that are being reviewed in a systemic analysis by Yates et al., (2019). Because a significant volume of plastics are incinerated, there are also concerns about health problems associated with air pollution (Halden, 2010).
Financing the transition
The proposals set out here are primarily about redesigning packaging, using the powers of the state to change consumer, packaging industry, and food system behaviour. A circular economy approach means that valuable materials are re-used and this takes pressure off both the waste management system and the need for environmental cleanup, which should in theory reduce state expenditures. Waste management, in particular, is hugely expensive, especially for municipalities. Governments are attempting to transfer more of these costs to industry as part of EPR, which should (although the evidence is currently mixed because of inconsistent EPR programming, see Watkins et al., 2017) encourage industry to redesign packaging to reduce their costs, something that has largely failed to materialize from existing recycling programs. The EPR implementation experience in Europe does suggest that governments will save money on waste management costs (Watkins et al., 2017). Industry saves money with lightweighting, and in some cases using more basic materials that are not composites and multimaterial packaging. The overall simplification of packaging - sizes, amounts and materials - will contribute to overall cost reduction. Although some manufacturers will experience shifts in demand based on packaging changes, overall there will not be a reduction in food consumption associated with packaging changes because eaters will not reduce overall consumption (the inelasticity of food demand).