Red To Green Talks: The Trouble With Food Packaging Today

In this very special series, we are sharing excerpts from Season 2 of the excellent Red to Green Podcast created by host and future food enthusiast Marina Schmidt. The show features in-depth conversations about the intersection of the food tech industry and sustainability. Season 2, titled ‘Plastic Alternatives’, is dedicated to the world of food packaging with a focus on exploring alternatives to fossil fuel plastic materials and solutions.

Should we ditch plastic packaging?

The below conversation is an excerpt from Red To Green Season 2, Episode 1: Plastics, Toxicity, and Greenwashing, during which Marina Schmidt, founder of Red to Green Solutions talks to Nick Johnson, a Ph.D. student in cellular agriculture scaffolding and president of the UC Davis Alt Protein Project, on the topic of sustainable packaging for food companies and the presence of plastic in our everyday lives.

Audio transcript by Descript, with edits by Anya Roschke.

Marina: The question that we want to answer is how can food companies move to more sustainable packaging, which actually means ditching plastic packaging. We will focus on food, product packaging, but will also include beverages, gastronomy, and reducing the impact for out the supply chain, which is not to be underestimated. I think the season is also relevant to people and companies who are not in the food sector. 

Nick: Cool. So you mentioned, ditching plastics is potentially the best solution in a number of cases. Does that mean ditching plastics entirely, the issues of bioplastics are compostable alternatives; that’s all stuff that we’ll cover in this season, right?

Marina: Yeah, I think the issue is where do we get our feedstock from? And as long as it’s petroleum-based, it’s pretty much per definition, not sustainable because plastics tend to be downcycled and the majority of plastic never gets recycled globally. It’s 10%, which is ridiculous.

“The majority of plastic never gets recycled globally. It’s 10%.”

Marina Schmidt

What about the toxins in plastic?

But this is also a topic that’s a human health issue apart from just being an environmental issue.

Plastics have been found to absorb harmful chemicals and release them upon ingestion. These are, for example,  persistent pesticides, like DDT, flame, retardant chemicals, and PCBs.

So plastics are increasing their concentrations by order of magnitudes. You can imagine them like sponges, which release these toxins once they are in the body. They’re also known to concentrate the pollution by factors of up to a million, for example, with PCBs and that’s actually how environmentalists sample the pollution levels in oceans by using plastic as a measurement.

If a herring eats some Brine shrimp and a cod eats some herring, the tuna eats the cod. And then we, when we eat the tuna, get an all-inclusive package of all of the accumulated toxins. And so Americans eat, drink and breathe more than 74,000 microbes of plastic particles every year. Therefore, plastic is not something that accumulates somewhere just in a third-world country.

“Americans eat, drink and breathe more than 74,000 microbes of plastic particles every year.”

Marina Schmidt

It comes back to haunt us through the water we drink through the food we eat. And it has been found in various food sources, like even honey and beer.

Why do we need food packaging?

Nick: Hmm. Interesting. So why are we focusing on plastic alternatives specifically in the food space?

Marina: So 30% of all plastics are used for packaging and the food industry is one of the major contributors to that and especially single-use plastics, which is such a pity. If you think about that, it’s just being wrapped. Once you eat it, you throw it away. Especially in the gastronomy sector.

This may just be used for 30 minutes just to bring the food from a shop home. To your apartment, therefore tackling the topic in the food industry is especially worthwhile, and also it’s quite behind compared to other industries, switching to more sustainable packaging is a bit more challenging and the food industry.

Nick: Why is that?

Marina: Well, because with food, you always have the issue of potential contamination and from the point of consumption there’s lots of stuff that can go wrong. So good packaging serves the purpose of transporting the food in a safe and efficient way.

And also, when you talk to people, selling products in retail stores, they will always talk to you about the value of good packaging, how it looks, how it feels in driving sales.

Food packaging has a central role in reducing food waste at the same time. That’s one of the arguments where we really need to dig a bit deeper and question that because. If you look at food waste and I’ve been looking through various reports today, there are very many topics and issues related to that.

Between 30 to 50% of food gets wasted.

Marina Schmidt

And what about food waste?

It’s not just the packaging, apparently between 30 to 50% of food gets wasted, even though we are packaging everything in the most ridiculous amounts. I think if we want to change to sustainable packaging companies working on these solutions need to get enough funding and enough exposure to be able to optimize and scale their solutions. To be able to then create packaging, which serves a similar need as plastics without having this slight side effect, that it will contaminate the oceans and also, be harmful to humans, and be fossil fuel-based, you know, because the central problem is that within the space, you can find a lot of arguments done in a well-meaning state and with good intentions that say, well, but this isn’t the ideal solution. But the issue is we don’t need an ideal solution. We right now just need a solution that’s less shit.

Sorry for being blunt on that. We can’t postpone switching just because we are like, yeah, but this solution is not perfect and this solution is not perfect. We just need to shift gradually to less shitty solutions.

Nick: Well, and as that shift happens, we’ll have more research and development in that area. And then those solutions will improve over time; right?

Marina: Exactly. And they need to get that initial funding to be able to improve.

The Red to Green Podcast is available on iTunesSpotify, and all popular podcast apps by typing in “Red to Green” in the search bar. Listen to this episode of Red to Green here.

Want more? Check out the whole Red To Green Talks series here.

Lead image courtesy of Jasmin Sessler (Unsplash).

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