Environmental Impact Of Convenience Food

Convenience food tends to get a bad rap because of the packaging, but if you look around the supermarket, it’s not just frozen dinners that are overpackaged. Most consumers are drawn toward attractive packaging whether we like to admit it or not. Marketing divisions of food manufacturers are aware of this and work hard to catch our eye as we make our way down the aisles. Nutritionists advise us to do most of our shopping around the outside of stores where the fresh vegetables, fruit, dairy and meats are sold. However, unless we are fortunate enough to have the time to spend making every meal from scratch, we all need to have a stockpile of convenience food in our pantry, fridge and freezer.

Packaging Protects The Food
Marketing is not the only reason food is packaged. Packaging helps determine the shelf life of food, maintaining the quality and freshness of the food product. Preventing waste from spoiled food is also an environmental concern. Studies have shown that the positive impact of preventing food waste dramatically outweighs the negative impact of the production and disposal of packaging. We can’t think of packaging as a stand-alone product. It’s basic function when it comes to food is to protect and distribute a product, while also informing consumers of ingredients and nutritional values. Without the packaging, food is ruined or contaminated, fragile products are broken, distribution is inefficient, and there is even more waste. Ideal food packaging would be made of inexpensive, renewable and recyclable materials that protect and preserve the food, look great and provide nutritional information.  What are the chances a manufacturer can meet all those goals?

Environmentally conscious design will preserve the food in packaging which is optimized for the size and shape of the product. What may be surprising to consumers is that corporate greed drives efficiency and that means less waste! No corporation wants to throw away product so their resource management divisions are constantly looking for more efficient ways to package and transport products. With the cost of food soaring, reportedly up 40% in 2010, companies cannot afford food waste since it impacts their bottom line.

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Food Waste Is A Bigger Issue
Food waste statistics are appalling. Experts estimate that globally, between a quarter and a half of all food supply is wasted. In the United States alone, nearly 265 pounds of food is wasted per person each year!

Recent surveys by the Environmental Protection Agency found that about 31 percent of municipal solid waste is comprised of packaging materials compared to nearly double that amount that comes from non-packaging sources like newsprint, phone books etc. Of the packaging waste, food packaging accounts for about two thirds by volume. This contradicts public perception that packaging is the largest component of municipal solid waste.

Conscious Consumers
Consumers need to play a role in minimizing the environmental impact through mindful shopping and recycling practices. Aside from only buying fresh products, recycling is the best way for the average person to help divert materials from the landfills. In most states, recycling programs allow people to easily separate everything that is recyclable into collection bins. People who embrace the programs find that their actual garbage bin will contain a fraction of the amount that goes into the recycle bin. Almost all packaging materials are recyclable.

Johnathan Holt is a food and nutrition expert who loves to write about how to make quick and easy meals work for the whole family.

Photo Credit: pesotum74