What Food Should Go Nude?

And when can packaging actually be good for the environment?

If you’re like me, you probably get a bit annoyed when you discover that an item you bought in the grocery store uses too much packaging. It seems like such a waste of plastic and cardboard. From an environmental perspective, wouldn’t it be better to conserve resources and use less packaging material?

Not necessarily—it depends on the type of food. Researchers in Sweden recently used life cycle assessments (LCAs) to examine the environmental impacts of food production and food packaging on global warming (carbon footprint), energy use, eutrophication, and acidification. (1) They found that additional packaging can decrease the overall environmental impact of foods such as animal products (e.g., cheese and beef) and those with high losses due to spoilage (e.g., bread). That’s because additional packaging can cut down on spoilage, damage, and waste. (An example of “additional packaging” is the protective plastic tray found under meat that is wrapped in plastic film.) LCA studies show that the biggest environmental impact for many animal-derived foods and bread comes from growing and processing these foods, not from their packaging. There may be a small increase in environmental impact from additional packaging, but it is offset by the much larger decrease in environmental impact from reduced food loss.

In contrast, the study found that for foods of vegetable origin, it is generally environmentally beneficial to avoid excess packaging. For example, consider that the energy required to produce one kilogram of cheese is nearly 60 times that needed to produce its packaging. In comparison, the energy that goes into making one kilogram of ketchup is only twice that required for its packaging. So for vegetable products, the relatively large impact of packaging is not offset by decreased spoilage and loss.

The authors suggest that policies aimed at reducing packaging may be misguided if they end up increasing food loss. As consumers, we should worry less about the Styrofoam and plastic wrap encasing the ground beef—and take a pass on the shrink-wrapped broccoli.

—David Tyler

1. Williams, H. and F. Wikström. 2011. Journal of Cleaner Production doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2010.08.008.

David Tyler is the Charles J. and M. Monteith Jacobs Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oregon.