British Columbia

Not all plastic food packaging is bad, says National Zero Waste Council

Amid an environmental rallying cry to reduce packaging, one organization says wrapping some foods in plastics or putting them in containers can actually reduce waste.

Proper packaging can help reduce the nearly $50B worth of food wasted every year in Canada, new report says

The National Zero Waste Council says plastic packaging like this can actually reduce harmful methane-producing waste. (Erik Anderson/EPA-EFE)

Amid an environmental rallying cry to reduce packaging, one organization says wrapping certain foods in plastics or putting them in containers can actually reduce waste in the long run.

In a report released this week, the National Zero Waste Council says packaging some foods can protect them from damage or ruin and thus end up in landfills, where they produce harmful methane gas. 

Malcolm Brodie,  the mayor of Richmond, B.C., and  the chair of the council, says even a small amount of packaging can help prevent a lot of food waste.

"Most food is packaged in some way," Brodie said. "Is the answer to get rid of all the packaging or are we smarter about it?"

Experts say about $50 billion worth of food goes to waste each year in Canada. (CBC)

The report does advocate for the sale of bulk or loose foods with no packaging where appropriate —  for foods that are dry, hardy and more shelf-stable. But for many foods, like milk and meat products or fruits and vegetables that are easily damaged, that's not an option.

"Ultimately, the answer is to have innovation and development rather than simply taking a simplistic approach with a sledgehammer and saying we're not going to allow plastic packaging," Brodie said. 

The key, according to Brodie and the report, is to create more environmentally friendly packaging that has less plastic overall, includes more post-consumer recycled materials and keeps food fresh for longer.

Martin Gooch, lead author of the report and CEO of consulting firm Value Chain Management International, says not all packaging is created equal.

"It's not packaging per se that is bad," Gooch said. "It is how the packaging system operates and how there's a lack of incentive for both industry and consumers to optimize the use and management of packaging."

The report says food loss and waste is at "crisis levels." About $50 billion in food along the supply chain — from farmers' fields to warehouses and people's homes — goes to waste each year in Canada, producing 22.2 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. 

A single extra day of shelf life can reduce food waste by 200,000 tonnes a year, the report says.  

Lack of standards

One of the types of packaging that Gooch finds problematic are plastics labelled as biodegradable.

Many waste management experts say these plastics create havoc because, despite their environmentally-friendly allure, they are often neither compostable nor recyclable. 

"The term biodegradable by itself means very little," he said. "It is used by some companies as a gimmick."

Gooch says stores could establish a standardized system for reusable containers for loose or bulk items. (Laura Meader/CBC)

The goal, Gooch says, is to set industry standards that benefit manufacturers and consumers alike.

These could include providing financial incentives to encourage packaging companies to include a minimum amount of post-consumer recycled plastics in their products, as well as providing recommendations on the types of packaging that are the most likely to prolong the shelf life of certain types of foods. 

Reducing waste

Gooch says it is still appropriate to recommend that some foods be sold in bulk to eliminate packaging — like apples, pastas and even sugar. 

For foods that require some type of container, Gooch says grocers could set a standard size or weight for reusable containers that customers could bring and fill themselves. 

Brodie says so far there has been positive feedback on the report, especially because, as a result of the pandemic, people are taking less frequent trips to the grocery store and consumers and grocers alike want to preserve food longer. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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