On October 23, 2013 the peer-reviewed journal Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A published the article “Sustainable (food) packaging – An overview” by David A. M. Russell of Sustainability Business Innovations, Siebnen, Switzerland. The author gives an overview on key aspects that should be considered when evaluating the sustainability of food production and supply chains.

One example given refers to the sustainability of bioplastics, which might be based on agriculture-based materials or on fossil sources, and might or might not be biodegradable. Producing polyethylene (PE) from sugarcane requires twice as much energy compared to fossil fuels, and hence increases carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions rather than decreasing them. In view of that, Russell advocates for a holistic point of view, which reflects in an equilibrated manner the impact on the ecological, the social and the economical realms. He also emphasizes that the quality and wellbeing of all three realms should be increased in order to elevate overall sustainability. This three-dimensional standpoint is termed the triple bottom line of sustainability. Adequate decision making fostering sustainability, Russell states, relies on precise measurements along the whole chain from production to consumption. Russell refers to the example of the over-fishing of the Northern cod population of Newfoundland in the 1970s and 1980s, which triggered the consecutive break down of the above named realms: Collapsing fish populations (ecosphere) lead to the breakdown of the local fishery industry (economy), which led to mass unemployment (social) with consequence that government of Canada had to support the region over decades. To counteract such adverse developments the author proposes that a holistic perspective of a product’s life cycle should rely on the following five pillars: conservation of the bio-sphere, conservation of resources, societal enhancements, protection of humans’ integrity, and the economic improvement of the value chain service provision to the final consumer.

Applied to food packaging, sustainability implies that materials can be recycled, water usage is minimized, no land fill waste is generated, materials can potentially be reused, production involves renewable sources of energy, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are prevented, human health is protected, etc.  Present day food packaging is lighter and its production is less energy intensive, resulting in lower emissions. Furthermore, intelligent packaging controls ripening processes and reduces the spoiling rate, thereby preventing food waste. Russell, however, argues that an exclusive focus on packaging is not constructive nor sufficient. Rather, the whole supply chain should be taken into consideration, covering the production of the entire product and its retailing. According to the author the narrow focus on retail and waste collection is a result of biased perception of consumers and politicians who rely on their daily experiences. Russell, therefore, states that “sustainability is not synonymous with recycling, recyclability, recycled content, biodegradability and other popular buzz-words, but that it is the overall resource efficiency of the supply chain that should be the main priority.” Henceforth, collecting and mechanical recycling of package materials might reduce financial and energy input, but only up to a point where the collection, sorting, cleaning and reprocessing is more economical and less energy consuming than compared to the production form virgin material. Furthermore, mechanical recycling is the less sustainable the more dispersed and contaminated packaging materials become over time.

Concluding, Russell states that present day challenges as population growth, demographic shifts, climate change and fresh water scarcity demand sustainability assessments that go beyond generic environmental indicators and are based on holistic and anthropogenic standpoints. The environmental, social and economic dimensions in concepts as the triple bottom line should be carefully equilibrated in order to minimize short and long term negative impacts on either of the mentioned dimensions over the entire life cycle of goods and services. To achieve this goal Russell is referring to the Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) design concept (McDonough and Braungart 2002), which asserts that sustainable societies are not created by just minimizing bad aspects as arising for example from waste systems, but rather by redesigning them to be inherently sustainable. Sustainable packaging is key to future systems, Russell declares. Russell mentions among others human health as one factor to be included in the evaluation of the sustainability of food packaging materials. In the opinion of the Food Packaging Forum (FPF) measuring migration of potentially hazardous chemicals from food contact materials (FCM) into foodstuff is crucial in assessing sustainability from a holistic perspective.

Read more

Russell, David A.M.  (published online October 23, 2013). “Sustainable (food) packaging – An overviewFood Additives & Contaminants: Part A

McDonough, W., and Braungart M. 2002. “Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things.” New York: North Point Press.