Plastic Packaging Is Good for the Environment? Rubbish!

Sitting in my son's school lunchroom one day after a teacher conference, I mourned the loss of sanity in our food system. I was holding a plastic packet of apple slices and the ingredients were not just "apples" but included a chemical preservative. I could taste it and it wasn't good.The next week, he brought home part of his cafeteria meal, an orange, in his backpack. It had been sliced crosswise on one end, about halfway through the fruit, to make it easier for children to peel. It too was wrapped in plastic. It also gave off an unappetizing, overripe odor.

But here's the shocker: These plastic-wrapped fruits, says James McWilliams in the New York Times' Freakonomics blog, are a good thing, not just for ensuring my son eats his apple (or orange) each day but also for landfills. McWilliams' argument is this: Just a little eensy bit of plastic packaging -- in the case of cucumbers, just 1.5 grams! -- extends the shelf life of a fruit or vegetable significantly.

Making Food Last Longer

For cucumbers, it's 14 days instead of just three days. For apples, potatoes and grapes, selling the foods in a plastic-encased tray ends in less waste, not more. The INCPEN, a U.K. packaging trade organization, says waste is decreased by 27% "from home to orchard" when it's sold four to a shrink-wrapped tray. In a conclusion that's an echo of the British organization Carbon Commentary ("waste food is far more important" than packaging overuse) McWilliams writes, "the longer food lasts the better chances there are of someone consuming it."

He goes on to make the "perfect world" disclaimer: In that best of all possible places, we'd eat local, accept apples with bruises and cabbages with a bit of rot on the leaves and "produce all our own food." He doesn't clarify whether he means I should be eating only the lettuce growing in my garden, the chickens I raise in my backyard and the cheese I make from my goats -- or if "our own" is my own neighborhood, my own grocery co-op, my own "foodshed," my own region or my own country. These are rather enormous distinctions. But let's go on with his reasoning.

It's not a perfect world. We are not perfect people who bake bread from locally milled flour. So, says McWilliams, "the vast majority of food moves globally, sits in grocery stores for extended periods, and spends days, weeks or even years in our pantries. Thus, if you accept the fact that packaging is an unavoidable reality of our globalized food system, you must also be prepared to agree that a bunch of food waste in landfills is worse than a little plastic waste. That's because of the methane it produces when it decays. And our despicably wasteful ways with food in our own house is the biggest problem of all.

Not Eating Your Leftovers

In other words, says McWilliams, it's you, you bad consumer, you, the one who doesn't eat your leftovers and who produces the average 4.39 pounds of trash a day. The problem isn't the lack of infrastructure for local food systems, the extreme marketing of single-serving packaging, the shenanigans pulled by food manufacturers to capture a larger and larger percentage of your food dollar, often through packaging tricks. It's the fault of Average Joe and Jeanette and their tweens, who never finish their Danimals Crush Cups. (The link leads to this gem of a quote quote: The consumers are enthusiastic about "the significant marketing investment Dannon is making," says a Dannon executive.)

I have a hard time attributing all (or even most) of the blame to the consumer, who McWilliams says would be "better off... buying more strategically, minimizing waste, and eating less... [and] choosing foods that are packaged in a way that reduces waste at home" than, say, leading a campaign for package reform.

My argument is also multi-pronged, but I'll begin with this perfectly reasonable conclusion McWilliams draws from the numbers crunched by the waste management and packaging industries. "Seems bizarre," he writes, "but it's possible that we waste more energy by not scraping the bottom of the barrel than we do by throwing out the barrel when we're done."

A Common Fallacy

His post infers, if it does not quite make, a fallacy that is common in many set pieces on environmentalism: That energy is expended through failure to conserve. This argument, much like the one claiming eating peanut butter uses less energy than hamburgers, is not quite true (and in fact, given a set of different assumptions, could be exactly false).

Only eating half of an apple, or throwing that whole apple and some of its brethren away because it's already spoiled, does not use energy, except the calories you'll expend tossing it, I suppose. The energy was already expended and for an unwrapped apple includes transportation, which must be less as its shelf life is shorter, and the farm's inputs. It also includes, possibly, refrigerated storage at the grocery store, farmer's market or convenience mart where it was purchased. Again, it will be less if the shelf life is less.

No argument of any convolution could assert that the energy produced to get four unwrapped apples to the store is more than that energy -- and resources -- for four shrink-wrapped apples on a tray. Let's remember plastic is a non-renewable resource and post-consumer plastic is not considered suitable for food use.

Composting Weakens The Case

Another assumption made by McWilliams and the packaging people is that food waste is thrown in the trash, wheeled to the curb or tossed down the chute, and stuck in a landfill where it emits the stinkiest and greenhouse-iest methane. This does not need to be true.

In my experience it's lack of infrastructure, and not lack of desire, that keeps most consumers from composting, or turning that food "waste" into organic, life-giving soil, the way humans did for millennia before plastic packaging came along to save us. My city, Portland, Ore., is starting a trial in which every alternate week's trash pickup is replaced by food waste pickup, headed straight to a city composting center. I've already spoken to two customers who say they've always wanted to compost, but didn't, until now.

Were curbside composting to be available -- and used -- everywhere, most of the "packaging is good for you!" argument would be gone. Municipalities will one day, I predict, make it illegal to dispose of food waste in landfills, just as it is now illegal to dispose of dead animals that way.

Does Food Taste Better In Plastic?

Finally, there is the quite pragmatic contention that we are more likely to consume food if it is not spoiled, or if the plastic packaging is designed in such a way to discourage waste and that food lasts much longer and tastes better if it is wrapped or otherwise encased in plastic. I could see this argument through the Cucumber Grower's Association's lens.

I could also see it a couple of different ways. Do these prunes spoil more quickly in the individually-wrapped packaging than in the bulk bin where I buy them? The prunes I just ate a few days ago, from a 2008 harvest, say "how long do you really need these to last?" (They were delicious.)

And let's take the local, organic bag of pears I bought at my crunchy food co-operative a few weeks ago. I'm willing to lay odds that neither that, nor most of the produce wrapped in plastic at my local Trader Joe's for instance, lasts any longer than those fruits and veggies unsullied by any packaging other than a PLU sticker. And yet, it's a bargain to buy the three-pound bag, and so I do.

A Victim of Packaging

Today, I threw into my compost bucket two pears, badly spoiled. I'd thrown away two more a few days earlier. The apples I bought from an old-fashioned produce basket, singly, and put in my reuseable shopping bag? I'd bought exactly as much as I knew we'd eat. Their cores and stems are stewing alongside those spoiled pears. I'm a victim of packaging. I'll re-use the pear bag but its energy has already been consumed, its petroleum extracted and extruded, its greenhouse already gased.

Using a narrow set of assumptions and giving no change is possible to our nation's food and wastestream infrastructure, yes: McWilliams is right. Is is better to package than not to package! But I don't buy his assumptions and I believe change in our system is as overripe as those organic pears. I'll happily campaign, impassioned, for packaging reform -- and better support for local food systems, more access to fresh (unpackaged) produce, much wider availability of municipal composting, while I'm at it.
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