The future of plastic food packaging 

Recycling, Composting, and the Lies People Tell

By Roger Tambay

Reducing our environmental footprint is an enormous task. Every year, an estimated metric: 227 million kg of plastic food packaging is sent to Canadian landfills. And over 56 million tons of greenhouse gases are generated annually by food waste in Canada, the equivalent of 17 million gas-powered vehicles, or two-thirds of the registered road motor vehicles, in Canada. Consequently, the food packaging industry, like all industries, needs to contribute to a cleaner transition economy.

Unfortunately, the public has a difficult time navigating misleading claims and statements about plastic. Terms like green, eco-responsible, and guilt-free make it difficult for consumers to decipher what is real. This damages the industry’s overall credibility and makes it more difficult to implement real and positive change. A recent survey conducted in the U.S. showed that about 50 per cent of Americans don’t believe in environmental plastic packaging claims. Public policy is desperately needed to harmonize and regulate the relevant terminology in order to improve consumer confidence in the circular system. Without consumer participation, these efforts will simply fail. 

The food industry has the opportunity to play an important role. There are at least two ways in which the food industry can reduce emissions. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reports that globally, if food waste could be represented as its own country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the United States. According to UNEP, one-third of all food produced in the world—approximately 1.3 billion tonnes—is lost or wasted every year. But advances in food packaging can further preserve food, thereby reducing food waste and their emissions. A 2020 CBC report says that, by keeping food fresher longer, advances in food packaging may reduce food waste by $50 billion nationally each year, or by about 22 Mt CO2 eq., the equivalent of removing 6.5 million gas-powered vehicles from roads. Active and antimicrobial packaging and the use of blockchain technology are new and exciting means of further reducing food waste, extending production runtime, and reducing emissions. Eight per cent of the emissions reduction target could be achieved by reducing food waste—some of this could happen through strategic changes in packaging.

The second way the food industry can contribute to reduced emissions is by rethinking which materials are used to make packaging. Materials originating from low-emissions inputs (e.g., plant-based plastic or recycled plastic), and which are easy to compost or recycle need to play a major role towards reaching the net zero greenhouse gas targets and the elimination of plastic pollution. These include flexible and rigid plastic packaging articles that are turned circular in one of three ways: synthetically, through human intervention by entirely recycling used petroleum-based plastic articles into new petroleum based plastic articles of equal or better quality; by using nature’s carbon cycle to repurpose naturally derived flexible or rigid compostable plastic packaging articles into soil; or by recycling used naturally derived plastic packaging articles into new ones. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), switching to naturally based compostable or entirely recycled plastics would reduce global emissions by about eight per cent, not to mention solid waste reduction.

Deciphering misconceptions from reality

There are so many common misconceptions related to plastic food packaging. Here are the top five:

We will recycle our way out of the plastics problem

No, we won’t. In 1950, the world generated two million tons of plastic waste per year. We now produce over 450 million tons per year. In the 1990s, the plastics industry introduced the notion that plastic manufactured articles were infinitely recyclable. Yet, some experts predict that plastic waste and emissions will triple by 2060 and the announced increases in nameplate capacity further support this prediction.

Today, only about 10 per cent of the plastic we make is recycled: the rate for rigid packaging is about 20 per cent and about 1 per cent for flexible packaging. Several reasons explain the difference. Rigid containers are easier to recycle because part walls are thicker and easier to pick out, identify, sort, densify, transport, clean, and process. On the other hand, bales of flexible bags often consist of several different types of plastic film mixed altogether and therefore more difficult to transport, sort, and clean. Flexible food packaging films generally exhibit a high degree of ink coverage, or comprise a dissimilar barrier layer, or a metallized surface coating for improved gas barrier. These can only be downcycled into low end commercial uses, if at all.

The most ambitious recycling rate goal in North America is 65 per cent, the target set by California for single-use plastics. Even if we were to achieve this recycling rate, more production capacity of new virgin resin would still be needed to fulfill the expected demand growth. If production truly triples by 2060 and 65 per cent of that plastic is recycled, then net production will increase from 450 million metric tons (MMT) to 472 MMT, a net gain of 22 MMT. Ambitious recycling goals, incentives, and financial programs are much needed. But even these will be insufficient to solve the plastic GHG emissions and solid waste problems we experience today.

The amount of recycled content advertised on packaging is accurate and trustworthy

Consumers are frequently misled by the amount of recycled content displayed on packaging because of something called the mass balance method, often used to quantify the amount of recycled content in a plastic article. Zero Waste Europe, a European network of communities, leaders and change agents defines the mass balance method as a set of rules for determining the use of recycled content in a final product such as plastic packaging when both recycled and virgin feedstock have been used in the process. Simply put, the total inputs should balance with the outputs. In other words, the mass balance method assigns the recycling rate to a process, not to an article.

Take, for example, a process that uses 50 per cent of recycled plastic and 50 per cent of virgin plastic to make two different types of containers: 500,000 units of 12 oz containers weighing 30 grams each, and 250,000 units of 24 oz containers weighing 60 grams each. In this situation, the producer could ascribe a recycled content rate of 100 per cent to the smaller size, so long as the larger size has no recycled content. What matters is that the total inputs be equal to the total outputs, not the actual or true amount of recycled content in any given article. While the mass balance method can accurately portray the total amount of recycled content for a process, it can also give rise to misleading information at a product level. In other words, the container made of so-called 100 per cent recycled resin may in fact not contain any recycled resin at all.

Additionally, there are no ISO or ASTM standardized audit rules and guidelines to govern how independent third-party certification organizations perform audits. In other words, audit results vary depending on the certifying body. This combination allows companies to intentionally mislead the public and further undermine credibility.

Compostable vs biodegradable vs biobased vs green vs guilt-free packaging

Admittedly, this is genuinely confusing. And consumers are being intentionally misled with these terms. But consumers really do want to understand and make informed decisions, which is why understanding these terms is so important. 

Compostability defines a process, not an article or its composition. The process of composting means that an article is capable of being decomposed into carbon dioxide, biomass and water by commonly found microorganisms in a given environment and in a set amount of time. Compostables don’t define a product. Instead, the term sets out a series of environments in which an article may decompose through natural processes. Compostability has nothing to do with the material’s origin. There are both naturally based compostable plastics and petroleum-based compostable plastics.

By contrast, there is no time limit and environmental condition required for an article to be considered biodegradable. Consequently, a plastic article that takes 500 years to turn into biomass, causing micro-plastics along the way, is arguably biodegradable. 

Biobased, in other words a biological plastic packaging, means that its original inputs come from organic and new carbon-like plants, not fossil carbon coming from ancient deposits. Biobased plastic has nothing to do with compostability.

Some argue that arable land shouldn’t be used to grow plants for biobased materials and packaging because it competes with food agriculture. That is false. According to Constance Ißbrücker, Head of Environmental Affairs at the European Bioplastics Organization, in 2022 only about 0.02 per cent of all arable land was used to produce biobased plastics. So even if the consumption of biobased plastic were to increase a hundred-fold, only two per cent of the world’s arable land would be used for biobased plastics. Biobased plastics do not compete with food production for arable land.

Green packaging and guilt-free packaging are marketing terms used to ascribe a moral value to a packaging article. These are misleading because they fail to communicate any factual information. They confuse the public and negatively affect credibility. Some companies are now involved in class action lawsuits because of consumer protection laws which govern misleading tactics of this kind.

Paper is better than plastic

It depends. If you are comparing recycled paper to new plastic and if the consumer goes on to compost or recycle the recycled paper, then yes, paper is better. But producing new paper generates 40 per cent more GHG emissions than producing new plastic and consumes 20 times more water. And using recycled paper instead of new paper usually fares worse than using recycled plastics or biobased plastics because these plastics generate fewer emissions than even recycled paper does. Also, paper that is waxed, oily or greasy, or coated with plastic is difficult if not impossible to recycle and may not be compostable, either. 

When comparing recycled plastic, biobased plastic, and compostable plastic, one is better than the other

Recycled, compostable, and biobased plastics don’t oppose one another. We need multifactorial solutions to reduce plastic waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and each of these plastics has a role to play. The best alternative often depends on how the article is used. A rigid pail might be better suited for the recycling stream whereas a flexible barrier packaging for cheese, proteins, or condiments might be better suited for plant-based compostable flexible packaging. 

A persistent plastic can only be recycled, but a biobased compostable plastic can be recycled or composted—just because it’s compostable, doesn’t mean it isn’t also recyclable. Plastic recyclability isn’t about whether the plastic bag or bottle can be melted into a given shape and then remelted and formed into a different shape—it depends on whether there exists a robust end-use market for the recycled plastic. 

Moving Forward

There is a growing awareness around greenwashing and misinformation about plastic. This has already resulted in positive advancements such as the government rethinking labelling laws—the federal government is in the process of updating labelling laws to better regulate terms like compostable, degradable, and biodegradable, and the use of the chasing arrows symbol. Better labelling policy is needed for the system to work and to build consumer confidence. 

The food industry can play a key role in helping Canada reach its double objective of zero carbon emissions and the elimination of solid waste. Reducing food waste and wrapping food in cleaner packaging also aligns perfectly with the industry’s own goals of improving production efficiency, reducing cost, and better meeting the evolving needs of consumers. Food industry stakeholders need to be strategic in their investigation of packaging material choices so they can make informed decisions based on accurate information. Contributions of this kind from the food packaging industry could lead to a meaningful shift in how we think about materials packaging, affecting positive change in our efforts to reduce emissions, and strengthening consumer confidence.  

As founder of Montreal’s BioShur, Roger is a thought leader in compostable biopolymers, bioplastics, and carbon-neutral biobased materials.”

Check Also

Inverte: Turning food waste upside down

Tracking food portions in real time to better manage food and labour costs and enhance …