Behind the Scenes: A Look at Sustainability in Food Packaging

Behind the Scenes: A Look at Sustainability in Food Packaging

We’ve begun to grow used to hearing nearly every industry espouse the virtues of recycling and sustainability. Everyone, from business owners to schoolchildren, is taught to reduce, reuse, and recycle (with particular focus on the latter). But in some industries, and the food packaging industry especially, that narrow focus on recyclability is starting to broaden out to include other aspects of sustainability.

For food packaging, this means an increased focus on the full life cycle, more than just what will happen at the end of the packaging life cycle. Here are a few ways that conversations about sustainability are changing in the age of the circular economy.

Understanding Food Packaging

The choices companies make when choosing food packaging for their items are much more important and thoughtful than many people think. Customers rarely give much thought to the packaging their food comes in beyond its use as a surface for advertisement.

But there are many more aspects that make the choice of packaging important. The right type of packaging prolongs the shelf life of products, keeping your food safer and cutting down on the number of trips you will need to take to the store. These considerations can help reduce food waste since food is more likely to be eaten before it spoils if the packaging can keep it fresher longer.

Additionally, the size of the packaging can be equally important. With more families than ever experiencing an on-the-go lifestyle, single-serving packages could potentially end up more environmentally friendly overall and produce less waste.


Customer Attitudes Are Changing

Much of food packaging has traditionally consisted of materials such as plastic, which is effective at preserving food’s freshness but is not as helpful in terms of environmental sustainability. As customer attitudes evolve concerning both the food they eat and the packaging it comes in, companies now have a reason to change their approach to food packaging.

Consumers have become increasingly concerned with the amount of plastic waste we produce in our daily lives, as evidenced by a buildup of plastic garbage in the oceans and trash on the side of the road. Their attention to this issue will likely only continue to increase over the next several years, leading to a need for viable alternatives to plastic in food packaging.

The Trouble with Recycling

In the past, recycling was seen as an option that could work across the board for decreasing plastic waste and promoting the circular economy for the food packaging industry. Unfortunately, the funding for recycling is not as robust as it once was. This is partly because many countries that once accepted recycled products no longer do, giving the salvage no place to go.

Additionally, many community recycling programs have increased their restrictions in an attempt to cut down on questionable items being placed in the recycling. The so-called wishful recycling practice often leads to recycling contamination. Increased education on how to recycle items correctly will likely be necessary if we want to improve our recycling practices in the future.

Circular Packaging

The issues with plastic packaging continue to pose a relevant problem. Less than one-tenth of plastic packaging materials was being actively recycled toward the end of 2019, and most of that material ended up in landfills or dumps instead, where much of it will simply never degrade and remain for incredibly long periods to clog up oceans and other areas of our world with plastic garbage. Part of this could be improved with better education for consumers, ensuring that more plastics are recycled correctly and fewer end up in the trash.


Another solution is a change in the type of packaging used by companies. More companies are exploring compostable packaging solutions, creating trash with the ability to break down and not harm the environment. New research is even looking into the creation of a second-generation type of plastic that would be completely biodegradable. This product could offer the convenience and ability to keep foods fresh and safe longer like traditional plastics, but it would be able to break down.

A Sustainable Future

With the consumer’s eye now focused on sustainable options in food packaging, companies are called upon to make real changes in their processes. This means increasing transparency in the whole food processing and packaging experience, the knowledge of the manufacturing facility and the systems it uses, and the attention to the sourcing of renewable materials for use in the manufacturing and packaging processes. The future of food packaging is changing; the packages that contain our food products are garnering more attention than they ever have from a public with an eye for sustainability, circular economy options, and decreased waste. Keep an eye on your favorite foods to see how their packaging reflects these changes.

Mark CrumpackerMark Crumpacker is the CMO and President of Zume Culinary at Zume Inc.,  the Silicon Valley company that has revolutionized the pizza delivery business through its fleet of mobile kitchens outfitted with smart ovens. Mark has more than two decades of experience in the realm of consumer behavior and its effect on brands’ marketing strategies. Mark studied economics at the University of Colorado and earned a bachelor of fine arts in advertising and graphic design from the ArtCenter College of Design. You can follow Mark on Twitter at @markcrumpacker and read his full bio here