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Week Fifteen - Food Packaging

Saves nothing. Don't worry about food packaging, worry about what's in the package.

· Weekly experiments

My preschooler

- Yuk! There's a sticker on my apple! Mummy, why do they put stickers on apples?



- They're teaching fruit to read.

cartoon of an apple learning to read

Plastic fantastic?

I started this project because I wanted to rank different environmental actions against one another. Carbon accounting looked like the perfect way to gauge what works and what's greenwash.

Some ecopopular ideas, like eating vegan and flying less, save massive amounts of carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions (CO2e). Others save CO2e, but not as much as you'd think. And a few actually increase CO2e.

This week I looked at food packaging. Plastic packaging has been demonised in recent years. There's War On Waste, Plastic Bag Bans, Straw No More and dozens of others. But plastic packaging is not our biggest problem in the face of climate change. Worse, if done wrong, reducing plastic can increase emissions.

Food packaging stops waste

Packaging protects food during transport and sale and stops cross-contamination and spoiling. It also allows the sale of conveniently small portions. This reduces food waste, which in turn reduces CO2e (more on that next week). Having looked at several studies and run the numbers myself, I conclude that any packaging which reduces food waste or extends shelf life pays for itself in terms of emissions.

Let me tell you about my ongoing battle with kimchi.

Kimchi is a superfood so powerful, it was claimed to cure Bird Flu and Ebola (it doesn't, but you should eat some anyway). Every time I visit an Asian grocer, I buy kimchi, gently place it in my pannier bag and carefully ride home. The tub inevitably splits and spills chilli-flavoured cabbage juice everywhere. I always salvage my kimchi, because it's made by burying it until it rots and it can surely survive 20 minutes in my pannier bag (kimchi will outlast the mutant cockroaches). But the manufacturer has gone too far in their efforts to save money and resources. They've cut down on the plastic but sacrificed the product.

Cartoon of a mutant cockroach eating cabbage

My greatest fear - an army of mutant kimchi-fueled cockroaches

Is CO2e in the packaging or the food?

In most cases, at least 70% of CO2e in food comes from growing and producing it up to the farm gate. Transport, sale, refrigeration, cooking, disposal and packaging account for the rest. This makes any reduction in food waste far more important than embedded emissions in the packaging

This study on beef found that 96% of CO2e came from raising cows. The antimicrobial packaging used on the beef doubled its shelf life. Removing that treated plastic would have drastically increased emissions.

This study on plastic shopping bags found that if reusable 'green bags' are used 52 times or less, they lead to higher emissions than single-use plastic. Single-use paper bags generated even higher emissions because they need so much pulp to make a sturdy bag. Plastic isn't popular, but it's strong and thin and it doesn't take much to do the job, unlike glass, metal or paper.

If a container is reused a lot, it tends to perform better, but it's not always better than a thin plastic. In any case, from a climate perspective, we should spend less time worrying about packets and bags and more time worrying about what we put in them.

How much CO2e?

I saved my household's food packaging for a week. Per person per year, its production generates around 34 kilograms CO2e. But my food generates around 1,050 kilograms CO2e per person per year. The packaging accounts for 3% of my food's carbon footprint.

What if I chose to avoid this packaging?

I currently do my weekly shop at the local supermarket, a return car trip of 4 kilometres. Instead, I could drive to the Co-Op downtown and buy dry goods in reusable containers, then drive to the fresh food market for loose produce. Even if this eliminated all disposable packaging, the journey negates its purpose. The return trip of 17.5 kilometres in my small car generates more CO2e than the supermarket packaging - around 130kg CO2e across a year.

Don't let me put you off your farmer's market or Co-Op. If you enjoy shopping there, they have value. More importantly, they probably encourage you to eat less meat and waste less food. This slashes your emissions far more effectively than any green bag or mason jar.

Contents of an Australian household recycling bin for the week

Left, household recyclable packaging for the week. Right, household soft plastic packaging for the week - despite this pile's size, it only contained 60g of plastic.

BUT sometimes plastic really is evil

The above discussion assumes you discard packaging in a responsible manner. That means recycling what you can and putting the rest in a waste bin, where it will be safely interred in landfill.

If you throw out recyclables, you waste their resources and increase your CO2e (although it's still a small proportion or your overall food footprint). More significantly, if you chuck plastic in the park or ocean, you'll kill wildlife.

I still don't know why they put stickers on apples, but I'm no longer worried about it. The apple's the thing.

Spreadsheet calculations, reference list and data discussion in the 'Notes' section, Week Fifteen.