How Food Packaging Affects the Environment
With households fervently disinfecting groceries in a bid to fight the novel coronavirus (nCoV), the more distant threat of a rising climate seems almost like a nostalgic memory. The sheer amount of energy required for personal hygiene, let alone basic mental health, has de-prioritised the recycling process for millions of people around the globe.
The inconvenient truth, however, is that there is an undeniable link between an unbalanced eco-system and COVID-19. The simple fact of the matter is that our planet has been bordering on a tipping point for decades, and the virus marks a depressing milestone for humankind.
While the world waits with baited breath for an effective medical treatment, the virus has deeply affected humanity on a psychological level. A general sense of powerlessness prevails, yet it is more imperative than ever to think beyond current tragedies, with a long term vision of a healthy future.
Uncertainty and fear have infiltrated the minds of the population, with several bizarre conspiracy-rumours spreading like wildfire. Among these, is the false theory that COVID-19 is linked to the upcoming release of 5G technology. This totally unfound theory has resulted in the vandalism of over 100 mobile phone masts in the UK.
Even if the virus were somehow linked to being immune-compromised by 5G (which scientists have confirmed to be impossible) the majority of destroyed masts do not currently support 5G.This needless destruction of valuable resources illustrates the way in which panic has impacted the psychology of the public.
The pandemic has caused wide-scale impulsive wastefulness, yet the irony is that it is now more important than ever to preserve and prioritise the environment. Although at times the effort to make sacrifices for the eco-system may seem futile, there is no evidence to suggest that the end is nigh.
At any given moment, there is the possibility that a successful treatment will be discovered, enabling a cure for the virus before the creation of a vaccine. There is still hope for the future of the world, even in spite of the global recession. For this reason it is essential to keep the environment in mind, so that we do not lurch from one crisis to another.
While COVID-19 is known to spread in colder temperatures, the majority of viruses actually spread in warmer climates. With expert virologists warning that this will not be the last novel virus, it is in the interest of humanity to take every precaution against climate change.
The Disposal of Food Packaging Impacts the Environment in Many Ways
All food packaging has an impact on the environment, directly or indirectly, whether it is considered ‘environmentally-friendly’ or not. Factors such as natural resources (used for raw materials and to fuel the production and transportation of packaging) mean that even biodegradable products come with an ecological price tag.
Food packaging is directly responsible for a broad range of environmental issues, including overcrowded landfills, greenhouse gas emissions, and litter-pollution (both on land and in the ocean). The ecological concerns surrounding food packaging and its impact on planetary health, is largely centered on the manner in which it is disposed of.
While single-use plastic is the most notorious of all packaging products, even biodegradable or compostable packaging can have a harmful effect on the eco-system when disposed of incorrectly. However, on the whole, it is indeed single-use plastic that causes the greatest damage to the environment, and should therefore be avoided at all costs.
The Damaging Effects of Single-Use Plastic on the Environment
Of the 23 million tons of plastic packaging produced annually in Europe, forty percent of this (9 million tons) ends up in landfills, further compounding the existing space problems. Even worse is the fact that a shocking thirty-two percent (over 7 million tons) ends up polluting the land and the oceans.
In terms of the ocean, this volume could be achieved by dumping a plastic-filled garbage truck into the ocean every minute. If Europe continues along this trajectory it is estimated that by the year 2050, the number of dumped truckloads would increase to four per minute. This would equate to there being more plastic than fish in the ocean, which would permanently tip the balance of the environment over the edge.
At present, there are two large spinning ‘plastic islands’ located between the West Coast of North America and Japan. These two piles of debris have come to be known collectively as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) or alternatively, the Pacific Trash Vortex.
According to the National Geographic, “The seafloor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may also be an underwater trash heap. Oceanographers and ecologists recently discovered that about 70% of marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean.” The patches are so large that they span approximately 1 million square miles, three times the size of France, and can be seen from outer space.
In addition to the GPGP causing an imbalance to the subatomic levels of the eco-system, when plastic packaging ends up in our ocean it frequently injures and kills marine life. The fatalities are caused mainly through sea creatures ingesting the plastic, but also through entanglement which causes drowning, suffocation, and starvation.
It is predicted that without a radical change to the amount of plastic ending up in the ocean, over 700 species of sea-life could go extinct in the coming years. The current data reflects that 267 types of animals have already been affected, most famous of which is the sea turtle.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, however, is only part of a much more serious plastic problem. While the extinction of any species could indeed tip the balance of the eco-system, one of the main issues of plastic pollution is the toxic residues that are leached into the natural environment.
The geological impact of global plastic production (which is currently 360 million tons per annum) is so profound that it has led a number of scientists to suggest that we have now entered what has been termed the ‘Plastic Age.’ This hypothesis predicts that future fossils will contain stratified layers of plastic particles.
The Incorrect Disposal of Biodegradable and Compostable Food Packaging
Biodegradable and compostable food packaging, which is defined as all packaging capable of decomposition, can also have a negative effect on the environment when disposed of incorrectly. The main issue with bio-plastics (such as PLA or Bio-PE) is that they require specialised conditions in order to biodegrade efficiently.
Even though bio plastics are made from organic materials, they will only efficiently biodegrade with specific temperatures and techniques designed to speed up the disintegration process. When these products end up in the oceans, they do not decompose for years and may kill any number of sea creatures in the same way as traditional plastic.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of industrial composting infrastructure, the majority of these bio-plastics end up either in the landfills, or polluting the natural environment. Regrettably, when biodegradable or compostable products find their way into the landfills, they end up causing even greater damage than single-use plastics.
The reason for this is that biodegradable food packaging is made from organic materials which emit methane when they decompose in landfill conditions that lack oxygen. Therefore all organic food packaging that finds its way into the landfills, emits greenhouse gas and contributes to the rising climate.
Yet another issue with the incorrect disposal of biodegradable or compostable food packaging is that it is often added to the recycling alongside the traditional materials. Due to the fact that compostable plastic and cardboard are similar in appearance to their original counterparts, there has been widespread confusion among consumers and well-intentioned recyclers. Unfortunately when organic food packaging is added to the recycling process, it contaminates the purity of the raw materials which results in large batches being sent to the landfills.
Eco-Friendly Solutions and the Future of Food Packaging
Food packaging itself is indispensable in terms of hygiene, ease of transportation and protection from accidental damage. While sustainable solutions such as home-grown vegetables, nude food, and a zero-waste lifestyle are among the most effective ways to preserve the environment, they are simultaneously the least convenient.
The majority of urban-dwelling citizens simply don’t have the time (or land) to grow even basic vegetables in abundance. However, when visualising the future it is highly plausible that there will be a massive move towards urban farming and sophisticated bartering systems.
For now, the best bet is to employ ‘precycling’ which refers to preventative recycling. While recycling is an excellent secondary option, the process itself is limited in that it requires energetic resources.
Additionally, materials such as paper or cardboard can only be recycled between five and seven times, after which the material can no longer bind into a solid shape. However, it can be repurposed into compostable (or biodegradable) food packaging before this stage, making this material one of the most convenient eco-friendly options.
In future we will see a rise in industrial composting facilities, but for now even those residing in apartments can get by with a composting bag. Cardboard or paper food packaging can be composted regardless of whether it is labelled as ‘compostable’ or ‘biodegradable.’
The key to successfully returning this material to the earth is to tear it up into strips and combine it with the correct ratio of green waste. There are a number of composting techniques that can be used from home, including composting bags, worm bins and the traditional compost heap.
The Bottom Line
Despite the overwhelmingly uncertain future, it is in the interest of future generations to continue striving towards a greener lifestyle. The coronavirus has spread its tentacles into the minds of billions, causing unprecedented psychological strain and widespread panic. At times like these, it is imperative to remain focussed on the best possible outcome.
Conspiracy theories are disempowering and misleading, adding insult to injury when desperation leads to destruction. Let us remain ever hopeful of a treatment while continuing to take all of the necessary precautions. It may seem like too much effort to disinfect and recycle every item, but unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures (and not the vandalism of mobile infrastructure).
COVID-19 has presented a silver-lining of opportunity to restore harmony to the eco-system. The impact of more than half the world currently under lockdown has significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions. It would be a shame to offset the only positive spinoff of COVID-19, by recklessly forgoing eco-friendly practices during the pandemic.
As the world adjusts to what has been ominously termed the ‘new normal’, let us not forget the link between the environment and potential future viruses. While COVID-19 can never be viewed as a good thing, it is at least worth noting that the virus has only a small percentage of total fatalities, in comparison to if it were seventy, eighty or a hundred percent of all cases.
In a sense, this unfortunate and tragic outbreak serves as an ecological warning which helps to heighten the sense of urgency in regards to greener living. Of all the civil liberties that have been swept from beneath our feet, the power of consumer culture is still available in every choice.
The choice to prioritise compostable or recyclable food packaging is up to each and every citizen, and offers an empowering opportunity to make a positive impact on the future of planet earth. The fight against COVID-19 (and the prevention of other viruses) reaches beyond social distancing, to merge with the forward-thinking mindset of consumers around the globe. Let us therefore keep in mind the value of every green choice, striving towards a healthy future, perhaps more utopian than ever before imagined.