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Packaging and Food Waste: Martin Heller

In this segment, Martin and Benjamin talk about the trade-offs between food waste and food packaging, and individual consumers can do about it.
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Welcome back to this teach out on food sustainability. I’m here again with Dr. Martin Heller. Today in this conversation, we’re going to explore food packaging and food waste, and a little bit more about the trade off associated with wanting to reduce our packaging consumption at the store, while at the same time, wanting to reduce the amount of food waste that we experience. So, thank you so much for joining us again. Yeah. Thanks for having me, Ben. Let’s jump right into it. Looking at that specific trade off, I think a lot of us are really interested in reducing the amount of packaging that comes with our food.
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We go to the grocery store, seems to always come packaged in a lot of plastic, and a lot of other materials. But we obviously know there’s a trade off there with food waste, and food rot, and how do we transport and preserve our food. What is your research, and what is your experience with that trade off? Sure. Yeah, I mean it’s important to remember that usually the role of food packaging is to help get that food to an end user in a safe way so that it’s still consumable. We know that food waste is a huge problem in our country. Up to 30 to 40 percent of the food that we produced is wasted.
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The greenhouse gas emissions associated with that are also close to 30 to 40 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with our diet. That’s just looking at the greenhouse gases associated with producing that food. Oftentimes, if we look at the life cycle of food, and look at the impact associated with that production stage, and then compare it with what is contributed by some of those downstream stages, processing and packaging, transportation. For a lot of food and a lot of cases, the contribution from those packaging materials, in terms of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with those plastics, the materials of those plastics as well as producing them is relatively small compared to the impact of producing the food.
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If we can find packaging alternatives that help reduce food waste, either at the retail store or in influencing how consumers prepare and use those foods, lots of times that can result in a net system benefit in greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, all of those things need to be weighed with other trade offs, things like plastics in our land and our ocean that certainly are our concerns. But it’s an important lens to keep in mind that there are some of those emission trade offs. What I hear from you is complicated. It’s complicated. Oftentimes, it depends on which food we’re talking about.
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If you’re talking about a high impact food like beef, if you can add more packaging to it to reduce spoilage, it’s likely going to be a good thing because there’s so much resources that have gone into producing that food, that spending a little bit more to extend the shelf life and reduce the amount of waste that occurs is likely going to be a good thing. If you’re talking about something like salad greens or lettuces where the emissions associated per weight, and usually you have to have a pretty large amount of packaging to carry and transport that, the trade offs are a little more [inaudible]. Interesting. Well, so let’s jump into another form of preservation of our food.
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So here in the United States, refrigerators are ubiquitous. They’re used to preserve our food everywhere from refrigerated trucks and shipping containers to move the food around once it gets to the grocery store typically in a freezer section or even a refrigerator section, and then of course, we buy it, and we come home, and the first thing we do is we put it into our refrigerator to make sure that it stays longer, it stays fresh, for example. So can you tell us a little bit more about how preservation and refrigeration specifically play into this conversation? Yeah.
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A number of years ago, we looked at the energy use that is associated with our food system throughout from the farm to farm, from agricultural production through processing, retail, distribution, transportation, as well as in our home which a large chunk of it is storage and refrigerators. Still to this day, the striking piece from that is just how large of a contribution those at home refrigerators make. All of us have fairly large capacity refrigerators at our homes. They use a little bit of electricity and that adds up. It’s 10 to 15 percent of the total energy use across our food system, which is on the order is the same amount that gets used in agricultural production.
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So it’s significant, like you said, that has a role but we can start to think about ways of approaching our lives, approaching the designs of our communities in ways that might change that, and ways that people may not need large capacity refrigerators at our homes, where they’re shopping on a more regular basis at a community store, and maybe you just need a small refrigerator in your house. All of those community design questions play a role here. All right. It sounds like if we can reduce the size of the refrigerator is the unit something to aspire to, something that could help us. Generally, yeah. Interesting.
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There’s another interesting trade off that has happened when we phased out refrigerants that were contributing to depletion of the ozone layer. That was an international effort that was very successful. We made a big swap over to other refrigerants because we learned that these old ones were causing the ozone to deplete. A lot of the refrigerants that were popular in that switch out turns out are ones that contribute strongly to greenhouse gas emissions, to global warming. There’s been an additional amendment to that international effort, the Kigali protocol, I think it’s called, to work towards phasing out some of those high carbon footprint refrigerants. So some technology change that needs to happen along with that. Interesting. That’s really helpful context.
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Our learners are here to reassess their environmental impacts in the food spectrum of things. Specifically looking at packaging and food waste, what would be the main thing that you would recommend?
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Just keeping in mind that packaging has a role. I think it’s valuable to aspire towards using less packaging, but shunning food packaging just outright may not be the best approach. Again, those technologies have an important role to play, and can help in this additional challenge of reducing food waste, and in changing the way that we interact with our food. Great. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Martin. Thank you for joining us in this conversation. We hope to continue the conversation about packaging and food waste in the discussion forums with audio.

Many of us would like to reduce the amount of food waste that occurs in our food systems, while also reducing the amount of plastic packaging that goes into transporting and protecting our food. In this segment, Martin and Benjamin talk about the trade-offs between food waste and food packaging, and what we, as individual consumers, can do about it.

Discussion: What are some examples of material resources that are used to make your food? How does producing the food impact the environment?

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