Despite the number of food plants I have toured and profiled in my 14 years with QA magazine, the industry is so diverse that I never know just what I will be walking into, learning from, or writing about each new facility I visit. And when the Cover Profile is to be about a non-food-producing establishment, there is a good chance that the visit will uncover a gem of information that makes me reconsider our industry — and my viewpoints — in a new light.
Such was the case with my visit to the Michigan State University School of Packaging (page 14). While I learned a great deal about the studies and applications of food-packaging materials, the real gem of insight for me was a new perspective on sustainability in relation to the biodegrading of food vs. packaging.
In essence: Non-biodegradable packaging that protects the food and provides for longer shelf-life can be better for the environment than biodegradable packaging of lesser quality.
Why? There are the obvious reasons — longer shelf-life means less food waste on both the retail and consumer level. If I pull a box of crackers out of my pantry and, in tasting one, determine it to be stale, I am likely to toss it — crackers, box, and all. When I buy a loaf of French bread from the grocer’s bakery, I know that whatever isn’t eaten within a day will be hard and tasteless unless I put it in a plastic zip-close bag.
“Garbage tends not to change very much at all inside landfills.”
But there is a bigger story here. A less obvious, lesser known reason, the gist of which is best explained by a line from Rubbish! The Archeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy: “Garbage tends not to change very much at all inside landfills.” Note, first, the use of the word “garbage” which by definition means “discarded animal and vegetable matter, as from a kitchen” (dictionary.com). So, if this animal and vegetable matter (i.e., food) doesn’t change much in a landfill, that means that food inside a package is not decomposing any faster than the package; nor is a biodegradable package decomposing any faster than a nonbiodegradable package. In proof of point: In the study on which the book is based, a 25-year-old head of lettuce was found perfectly preserved beneath decades of waste.
This means that when I toss a half-full box of crackers or quarter loaf of French bread because its biodegradable packaging made the food go stale, that food will take more space in the landfill than a more protective plastic bag would have. And had the food been in a plastic bag that retained its quality, I would have tossed only the package after eating the rest of the crackers or bread.
This isn’t to say that plastic is good or biodegradable packaging is bad; it’s not to say we shouldn’t aim for sustainability in all our actions. In fact, it has caused me (and perhaps you, through this column and issue?) to rethink sustainability, the preservation of food, and the consequences of tossing “biodegradable” items of any sort. As School of Packaging Director Susan Selke says in the article, you need to look at the whole life cycle of the food and its packaging to make an intelligent decision.