The pursuit of sustainability – beyond recycling

Packaging – the assurance of food safety and greater food security
The pursuit of sustainability – beyond recycling

Photo - Tetra Pak

It’s well known that packaging attracts consumer attention, creates a preference to purchase, and inspires brand loyalty. More importantly, consumers believe that packaged products are associated with food safety. For example, travelers prefer to buy packaged drinking water over water available at restaurants or public water distribution systems because it removes the risk of water-borne diseases and is convenient on the go.

Consumers buy packaged products because they convey an assurance of hygiene, freshness and non-contamination. This is especially true in a country like India; agricultural hubs are generally located far from markets. Packaging is a solution that extends the lifespan of produce, enables it to survive transportation to consumers, and reduces food loss. Packaging is closely tied to food safety; packaged food checks the boxes on freshness and hygiene and helps ensure food safety in distribution to the country’s widespread geographies.

Let’s take the example of India’s dairy revolution, which made the country self-sufficient in milk and milk products and one of the world’s largest milk producers. A highly perishable commodity, milk is a critical source of nutrition. A part of this revolution was the logistics of distribution over long distances while ensuring freshness. Today milk brands across the nation use packaging to solve this problem, assuring consumers of safe, pure and nutritious products. Farming co-operatives rely on packaging to reach produce to markets where they get better prices and vice versa; packaged food is also becoming a preferred choice in rural areas, with changing lifestyles and rising awareness of health. Packaged food is a lifeline for critical services that work in remote locations or geographically tough terrain, such as hospitals, the army or railways.

In our pursuit of environmental sustainability, are we focusing on the right things?

While the packaging is undoubtedly an economic necessity, awareness about climate change, carbon neutrality and environmental consciousness are highest. Global food systems account for 26% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while 8% of total emissions are caused by food waste. As sustainability becomes a factor that drives consumer behavior, the packaging is a much-debated topic. Excessive packaging, recyclability, and responsible sourcing are top of mind for consumers and drive changes in packaging trends in the food industry. Recycling is the go-to solution, but while it can help reduce the environmental impact of packaging, recycling alone can’t eliminate this impact. The 100% recyclable packaging trend may seem like the answer, but this may not account for the depletion of non-renewable resources. Similarly, while the package itself may be recyclable, what about the emissions from the manufacturing processes? A fossil-fuel-based material, while recyclable, would have must higher environmental impact than a paper-based recyclable material.

Sustainability must consider the life-cycle of the product

For sustainability to create a lasting positive change for the planet, it is important for consumers and industry collaborators, including F&B producers (food and beverage), environmental experts, packaging industries and regulators, to consider the life cycle impact and create a virtuous cycle, otherwise known as the circular economy. Considering the life-cycle impact of a product gives a true indication of the industry’s environmental impact. Packaging is the most noticeable aspect of the F&B industry; it is the tactile, defining product experience for consumers. This is why recycling is an important topic, and it resonates with consumers and shapes their decisions. However, the end of life of a package is only a fraction of the overall climate impact. Even before the packing stage, the industry must take accountability for carbon emissions across the life cycle, including raw material sourcing, production processes and supply chain and logistics systems around the product.

The balance between food safety and sustainable packaging

Across the globe, nations are making strong commitments to achieve carbon neutrality to combat climate change. Regulation is being rolled out to limit carbon emissions, encourage recycling and encourage collaborative efforts towards a circular economy. F&B companies are responding to this challenge and shifting their priorities in packaging from cost to sustainability. Over 450 companies worldwide have signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme that unites businesses, governments, and other organizations to address plastic waste and pollution at its source. In recent years, research on materials and design for sustainable packaging has pointed out that many packaging products promoted as green material are not made from natural renewable resources. However, research on plant-based materials for packaging is making progress and is seeing success as a solution.

As the world’s third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, India also encourages sustainability, limits carbon emissions, and promotes recycling. The central government has already announced a phasing out of single-use plastics by 2022 while also proposing a framework for Extended Producer Responsibility that mandates the collection and recycling of all packaging waste. While this may seem the right answer and certainly a low-hanging fruit, recycling alone cannot be a sustainable solution.

As an emerging economy, India’s F&B industry serves the critical basic needs of food security and food safety for its citizens across the vast geographic terrains and long distances that food needs to traverse. For the next few decades, India has the world’s youngest population, taking to digital commerce, spending disposable income, and looking for healthy yet sustainable products. The need is to balance the benefits of packaging while making choices that minimize the impact of our decisions on the environment.

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