In 2018, the Food Packaging Forum published an article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Cleaner Production discussing chemical safety and material properties affecting the performance of different food packaging types in the context of the circular economy. FPF concluded, “the concepts of reduction and reuse could also be rethought… by simply decreasing the packaging to volume ratio, or by changing food production and food distribution systems entirely, with a focus on local production and local consumption.” Several research articles published recently in peer-reviewed scientific journals have outlined further steps and more detailed investigations into particular aspects of the circular food packaging value chain.
The articles in question all start from the understanding that in recent decades plastic production has increased significantly (FPF reported), which is partially due to the role of single-use food packaging in the transport and protection of foodstuffs through the supply chain.
In an article Bening et al. published on April 5, 2021, in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the authors examine barriers towards achieving a slice of the Circular Economy vision by reviewing literature and speaking to stakeholders at all levels within the flexible plastic packaging value chain. They discuss in their article the divergent views stakeholders hold about steps to improve the flexible plastic value chain. Bening et al. specifically highlight a case where current food safety legislation represents a barrier to make food packaging circular, as it precludes the use of recyclate in flexible food packaging for humans (FPF reported). While it is allowed for pet food, some brand owners do not see the point in taking advantage when later, customers may accuse them of putting pets at risk.
Flexible plastic packaging stakeholders find current technological (FPF reported) and economic conditions affect the ability to effectively re-use flexible packaging materials. Indeed, Cecon et al. in the journal Resources, Conservation, and Recycling recently looked at the recyclability of the flexible plastics polyethylene and polypropylene reporting that “the additives employed in plastics formulation are optimized for their processing and first-use, not for recycling,” and even the recycling process can generate toxic substances from certain materials (FPF reported here and here). Though Cecon et al. conclude that more research in the recycling process is necessary, they agree with the stakeholder interviewees in the Bening et al. study that differences in international standards can be a problem (FPF reported). Cecon et al. write: “a unified framework comprising all the details involving the use of recycled materials for food contact applications would be positive for all stakeholders in the process.”
An article from Sundqvist-Andberg and Åkerman in the Journal of Cleaner Production investigates the reason for difficulties in governing the sustainability of plastic food packaging. They found that while the goal of the circular economy covers the entire value chain, governmental policies focus the most on the beginning and the end of the chain, particularly the mitigation of plastic waste and littering. The authors find that few policies focus on the consumption phase of the value chain such as within the household. They conclude “that the different functions of plastic food packaging need to be acknowledged better in environmental policy design.” In all, particular problems at each point of the value chain demand well-thought solutions tailored to the needs of the stakeholders at that point.
Consumers, historically at the end of the supply chain but in a circular economy, a key component of the whole were the focus of a study by Walker et al. in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications and Otto et al. in the Journal of Cleaner Production. The two research groups assessed consumer perceptions of the environmental impacts of food packaging in Europe and Canada, respectively. Both studies found consumer confusion around the plastic waste management system, recycling process, and biodegradability of food packaging. In Canada, Walker et al. found “44% of respondents were confused with branding and marketing of sustainable single-use plastic packaging,” and 90% “believed they should be further educated on recycling processes, plastic use, and overall environmental impacts.”
Otto et al. specifically compared consumers’ perception and their rating of food packaging materials’ environmental sustainability versus the ratings developed by the researchers. They found consumers rate “the environmental impact of paper, cardboard, and metal … in line with the developed sustainability rating, whereas plastic packaging’s sustainability is underestimated [by consumers] and glass and biodegradable plastic packaging are highly overestimated.” Otto et al. suggest nudging towards sustainable packaging choices may improve sustainable behavior as consumers are generally less environmentally sustainable than intended. Systemically, policies working toward a circular economy have to be improved to account for consumer misunderstanding.
Indeed, in a recent article in Ecological Economics Chakori et al. look to stakeholders at all three levels of the supply chain (which they define as global, supermarket, and household) to work toward rethinking the food packaging problem as a food system problem underpinned by deeper socio-economic issues. Their study aims to broadly understand the structural transformation of the food system over the last several decades in order to “present a system-wide perspective on the drivers that lead to the use of food packaging.” Chakori et al. map the current use of food packaging through three overlapping system dynamics: the global system of production and consumption, the power and standardization of supermarkets, and changes in household structure.
Similar to the findings of Sundqvist-Andberg and Åkerman, Chakori et al. state the global research focus is often on unmanaged plastic waste and substituting new packaging materials for non-renewable materials. Chakori et al. argue “if the food system does not fundamentally change the danger is that it will simply transition from single-use plastic packaging to single-use biomass-based packaging, which is still resource-intensive to produce and has a short life before disposal. A change in packaging material will not change consumer behavior…” Instead, the authors argue that many of the issues in the current food system could be mediated through decentralizing food systems, shortening supply chains, and generally encouraging a de-growth mindset.
Geueke B. et al. (2018). “ Food packaging in the circular economy: Overview of chemical safety aspects for commonly used materials.” Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 193, 491-505, (published online May 4, 2018).
Bening C. et al. (2021). “Towards a circular plastics economy: Interacting barriers and contested solutions for flexible packaging recycling.” Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 302, 126966, (published online April 5, 2021).
Cecon V. et al. (2021). “The challenges in recycling post-consumer polyolefins for food contact applications: A review.” Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, Volume 167, 105422, (published online January 20, 2021).
Sundqvist-Andberg H. and Åkerman M. (2021). “Sustainability governance and contested plastic food packaging – An integrative review.” Journal of Cleaner Production, Pre-proof: (available online April 17, 2021).
Walker T. et al. (2021). “Single-use plastic packaging in the Canadian food industry: consumer behavior and perceptions.” Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, Volume 8, (published online March 17, 2021).
Otto S. et al. (2021). “Food packaging and sustainability – Consumer perception vs. correlated scientific facts: A review.” Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 298, 126733, (published online March 16, 2021).
Chakori S. et al. (2021). “Untangling the underlying drivers of the use of single-use food packaging.” Ecological Economics, Volume 185, 107063, (published online April 10, 2021).
Swinnen J. and McDermott J. (April 21, 2021). “COVID-19 pandemic offers rare chance for food systems transformation.” International Food Policy Research Institute Blog