On the paradise island of Maui in the Hawaiian archepeligo, a small farm nestles at the foot of the Mauna Kahālāwai, a mountain range where – it is said – the gods reside. On the luxuriant viridian hillside, cacao pods ripen gently on trees first imported by German immigrants in the 19th century and, complemented by the sugar cane grown (until recently) on the island, conditions are perfect for the creation of that staple treat: chocolate. Birthchild of a passion project, Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate now cultivates between 6000 and 7000 trees to produce its signature wares, elegantly packaged in luscious myrtle green wrappers accented in gold.
And, for the purposes of this article, it is the packaging rather than the chocolate per se that captured our interest. In a past article we wrote about the ways in which innovative materials are being used in the engineering of a new generation of biodegradable food packaging. We discussed options like WikiCells that use of plant-based particles combined with alginate to form an edible wrapping for produce, yoghurt, cheese, ice cream and beverages, and also the transparent biologically-active film created by the UK’s Pepceuticals that is intended primarily for meat packaging. We also outlined the role of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in regulating these new products by ensuring that all ingredients used in their manufacture conform to the ‘Generally Recognized as Safe’ or ‘GRAS’ guidelines.
Which is all well and good but what about consumables that do not lend themselves to the ‘washable, non-permeable electrostatic gel’ of WikiCells or the antimicrobial peptide formulation of the Pepceuticals alternative? What, for example, can purveyors of artisanal food items – such as Maui’s chocolate offerings – do to address the problem of wrapper waste? After all, it would be a culinarily adventurous cocoa devotee who would opt for a square of silky 65% dark chocolate encapsulated in a film derived from seaweed.
Although we reached out for additional information, the company was unable to respond in time for publication but, if this timeline for biodegradability is indeed correct, it could signal to other food producers that an alternative to traditional recycling exists on an island already struggling to handle the discarded bounty of the thousands of annual visitors who buoy the economy. We will wait to evaluate the success of this venture…
And it is scarcely a problem only for a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in the US alone more than 267.8 million tons of garbage are created annually, with 67.2 million tons thereof being recyclable materials. Figures for 2017 (the most recent available) show the breakdown of these almost 68 million tons as being primarily corrugated boxes (28.8 million tons), mixed nondurable paper products (9.9 million tons), newspapers/mechanical papers (4.2 million tons), glass containers (3 million tons), wood packaging (3 million tons), and mixed paper containers and packaging (1.3 million tons).(1) Interestingly, these figures demonstrate that the scale of consumer recycling of packaging – including food packaging – is on the increase. Again, data from the EPA show a rise in domestic recycling from ‘just over 6 percent of MSW [Municipal Solid Waste – aka ‘trash’] generated in 1960 to about 10 percent in 1980, to 16 percent in 1990, to about 29 percent in 2000, and to over 35 percent in 2017.’(2) On a per capita basis, this uptick equates to an increase in the recycling of paper and paperboard products from 17% in 1960 to 66% in 2017, and the 2% of glass products recycled in 1960 rose to 27% in recent years.
Despite the attempts by certain agencies to greenwash the situation not all glass, paper, aluminum, or plastic products – those materials that make up the majority of food packages – end up at recycling centers. Let’s take a closer look at their future beyond the blue recycling bin…
The EPA’s Environmental Benefits Table lists 44.17 million tons of paper and paperboard products as being recycled in 2017.(3) However, it also indicates that 4.49 million tons were disposed of by ‘energy recovery from combustion’ – in effect, incinerated. As a key component of non-hazardous waste management hierarchy, energy recovery from combustion sees material turned to ash in a combustion chamber, with the concomitant release of energy heating water to drive a turbine engine that produces electricity. The resultant ashes are removed to a ‘high-efficiency baghouse filtering system [that] captures particulates [which] are transported by an enclosed conveyor system to the ash discharger. [Once wetted they are] loaded into covered, leak-proof trucks and taken to a landfill designed to protect against groundwater contamination.’(4)
When it comes to glass products, however, the percentage of potentially recyclable materials given a second chance was significantly lower. Again, using the EPA’s 2017 figures, only 3.03 million tons of glass were recycled, whereas more than twice that amount – 6.87 million tons – found its way into landfills. Clearly, this is not good enough although it does pale in comparison to the situation of plastics, with only 2.96 million tons recycled and 26.82 million tons consigned to landfills.(5) Furthermore, as critics have noted, even the recycling of plastics is problematic insofar as recycling very often means downcycling – also known as ‘cascading.’ Downcycling is the process of deconstructing the original item – an example would be Styrofoam packing peanuts – into its component parts and creating a second generation of products therefrom. In the case of the plastic polymer polystyrene, aka Styrofoam, the ‘green’ peanuts are composed of 70% recycled materials and may be re-used many times. However, in general, the resultant items are often inferior in quality and functionality and, upon each iteration of the cycle, become increasingly less viable until they too are consigned to landfills.
It’s hard to argue with the fact that the EPA’s data include sobering figures for municipal waste production, especially when we consider the recent upswing in enterprises that make extensive use of food packaging – food/meal delivery companies like Blue Apron, Freshly, MagicKitchen, or Veestro, for example. The advantages of such services are myriad: nutritionally-balanced, portion-controlled meals are a good first step in increasing overall health and combatting obesity; a demand for the comfort of a home-cooked meal combined with convenience also fuel consumer uptake; and of course there is also the question of those with dietary sensitivities who are sometimes overlooked when dining out at conventional restaurants. However, when meals are centrally prepared for shipping to consumers, non-edible packaging is a very significant consideration. According to Blue Apron’s website, the clean plastic cups, trays and lids used in packaging meals can be safely placed in the consumer’s own curbside recycling container – just check for the #1 or #5 symbols with the triangle of arrow signifying plastic grade. Similarly with jars, cans, or bottles – assuming they sport the GLS 70 or FE 40 designation symbols. Likewise paper products such as shipping boxes, cardboard inserts, cartons, bands, recipe cards, and molded fiber containers with the triangular PAPER designation can join other recyclables curbside. However, plastic bags, ice packs, plastic-metallic bubble insulation, lidding film, and plastic sachets are not currently recyclable and end up joining the 26.82 million tons of plastics consigned to landfills. Not an ideal scenario, especially as the global meal kit delivery service industry was valued at ‘around USD 2.5 billion in 2017 and expected to reach USD 8.94 billion by 2025 with a CAGR [Compound Annual Growth Rate] exceeding 17.15% from 2017 to 2025.’(6) In other words, as the industry expands, the problem of food packaging disposal will only increase.
To its credit, Blue Apron does acknowledge the need to sideline conventional plastics in its packaging products once a viable alternative is available. And this is an arena in which alginate-based food wrappings – or indeed any edible alternatives – could easily replace plastic sachets, thereby removing them from the waste/recycling equation. Moreover, it may be that a new form of compostable foam, recently embraced by Perdue Farms, the nation’s largest purveyor of chicken, turkey, pork, and beef products, could offer an additional solution. Engineered from cornstarch, the Purdue Farms boxing foam actually disintegrates under running water, making post-preparation clean-up a snap, one assumes. In an article published just a few days ago in CNN Business, David Zucker, Senior VP of E-Commerce and New Ventures at Perdue Farms, acknowledges that the company has engaged in ‘significant conversations at the company in the past year about […] sustainability efforts and what more [can be done] to reduce the impact on the environment,’ seeing the new packaging as one initiative to reduce product-related greenhouse gas emissions.(7)
But is compostable foam a good solution for food packaging, whether generated by meal deliveries or in the grocery store? In the volume needed to effect significant change, could that amount of dissolved cornstarch – or wheat, another material that can be used to engineer compostable food packaging materials – actually represent a threat to the environment in itself? Or how about downstream at waste water treatment facilities? Or indeed to the sometimes delicate system of household plumbing? Well, the good news is that items made from the foam in question will decompose equally well in a landfill, although of course there is also the environmental and fossil fuel costs of the collection, storage, and transportation of such items to bring into the equation, so it is not exactly a perfect solution.
But what is?
Perhaps the uncomfortable truth is that there is no single answer to what is, in effect, a complex modern question. What does exist, however, is a growing will to seek solutions, and it’s a social drive worth harnessing. The movement towards ‘zero waste’ is one that regards recycling as a solution of last resort rather than a panacea allowing continued, unfettered consumption. For manufacturers, this means embracing a concept that ‘goes beyond recycling and composting at the end of a product’s life cycle, to encompass the entire life cycle of a product, beginning with product design, and envisioning the use and management of materials in ways that preserve value, minimize environmental impacts, and conserve natural resources’ – in other words, one that considers creative decisions that move away from the overly simplistic waste disposal/recycling dialectic.(8) And for consumers, instead of entering into the conventional production loop of manufacture-recycle-trash, zero waste advocates espouse composting, re-purposing, conscious consumption that rewards corporate sustainability initiatives and product longevity, and the avoidance of items that are single-use or otherwise detrimental to the environment. Moreover it means considering the end-life of a given item before accepting it and actively embracing – that is, supporting with our dollars – innovative alternatives.
In the same way that we once discarded Styrofoam without much thought, as consumers we are now more educated on the importance of using more environmentally acceptable alternatives that do not outlive us in a landfill or find their way to the oceans. Municipal recycling plays a part, as does a consumer reduction of initial use. Re-purposing/downcycling/upcycling also have roles to play and, in the food packaging industry, the drive to edible wrapping materials is an innovation worth watching, especially as it is one of the few concepts that actually feeds in to the zero waste paradigm. And while none of the initiatives represent a panacea, they all offer a piece of the puzzle that we can – and must – leverage. Until, that is, we either find the perfect solution or are crushed under trash mountains of our own making – whichever comes first.
What are your thoughts? Are you an ardent recycler or do you prefer simply not to buy in the first place? Do you think that zero waste is a possibility? We’d love to hear your opinions!