Recyclable. Recycled content. Compostable. Made from bio-materials. Which of these makes for a safe, sustainable package? The truth is that this is the wrong question, especially when it comes to food packaging. Let us start with a fast food hamburger, which generally comes in a paperboard box that is most likely polycoated (we will assume it contains no per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS).

What is the role of the package? It is to deliver the food to the customer in a way that provides containment and protection, while also keeping enough heat to maintain at least some level of appetite appeal, and also deliver the nutrition and physio-psychological satisfaction that the consumer expects.

What if the consumer drops the package and it opens, spilling the burger on the floor? What if the consumer drives home with the food and it is no longer hot enough to be appetizing? What if a family member eats only half of the burger, puts it back in the box, and leaves it in the back of the refrigerator until it turns blue with mold?

In all cases, these situations create food waste. It is not just the burger that is wasted. The pickles, onions, tomatoes, ketchup, mustard, cheese, bacon, and buns are also wasted. Also wasted are all of the material resources utilized to produce them: water, fertilizer, weed inhibitors, etc.; and the energy it took to plow, plant, and harvest those resources, along with the energy and materials needed to pack, store, ship, and prepare the final product. In fact, the package in this instance probably accounts for less than 5 percent of the total resources used to deliver both the package and the ready-to-eat product to the consumer. The food itself is responsible for about 95 percent of the total environmental footprint of a fast food hamburger!

With this in mind, we must reflect and account for the use of all of these resources—from production and preparation to purchase and mealtime participation—when we discuss sustainability. Now that we know this, we can more adequately define sustainable packaging.

Sustainable Packaging Defined

Sustainable packaging delivers the full value of the product(s) contained within and does so with the least amount of negative economic, environmental, and social impact throughout its lifecycle. This means that the single most important role of sustainable packaging is to ensure that all the food it contains actually gets eaten. Doing so ensures that the potential for significant solid waste and unnecessary greenhouse gas generation are both minimized.

This may sound simple, but there are a few philosophical as well as practical considerations that need to be considered when trying to work with this definition as a decision-making guide. In line with the second law of thermodynamics, this definition implicitly recognizes that "zero waste" is an aspirational goal, since it is physically unrealistic and economically nonviable. (The second law expresses a fundamental and simple truth about the universe: disorder, characterized as a quantity known as entropy, always increases.)

Sustainable packaging must also fulfill all of the key functions of packaging—product containment and protection, communication, branding, and convenience. It is important to remember that about 95 percent of the environmental impact of a product and its package is generated by the product, which is why product protection should be a key part of sustainable packaging decision-making.

Sustainability will be determined using science-based methodologies including material flow analysis (MFA), lifecycle assessment (LCA), corresponding to lifecycle inventories (LCI) and lifecycle impact assessment (LCIA); as well as cost-benefit analysis and risk-reward assessments. While these approaches inherently include value-based decisions, all efforts will be made to ensure that these are transparent to those viewing and using the information.

Energy, material, freshwater conservation, and contaminant/toxicity reduction should be of primary importance throughout the sustainable packaging value chain.

Primary Objectives of Sustainable Packaging

It is important to minimize the environmental impacts of sourcing raw materials and converting them into packaging, as well as to minimize the environmental impact of package and product disposal, including unanticipated release into both land and marine environments. The production of greenhouse gases should also be minimized, as should the potential to exacerbate anthropogenic global warming (AGW). This applies to both the package and the product(s) it contains.

It is also important to maximize product protection, as it is the single most important role of a sustainable package. Contaminants and toxicity associated with the production, use, and disposal of packaging should also be minimized.

Key Strategies in Sustainable Packaging Development

Sourcing must take into account where packaging materials are produced, whether resources are being replenished or depleted, and the economic impact of this production (or its removal) on local populations. Potential reduction of the disposal of materials and the energy associated with this task is always under consideration.

The usage and/or economic costs of all resources throughout the packaging value chain should also be minimized. This includes the use of both fossil fuel-based materials and those considered to come from renewable resources. The generation and atmospheric release of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), and refrigerants used in food preservation and distribution should be minimized. The use of fresh water also should be minimized, and the degree and amount of contamination must be closely monitored. Additionally, it is essential to minimize, remove, isolate or immobilize chemicals of concern within a package and its contents.

Overarching Goals and Core Strategies

Three goals are paramount in the drive to reduce negative impacts related to packaging and the products that it protects:

  • Reduce greenhouse gas generation
  • Enhance resource conservation
  • Reduce toxicity and contaminants.

To reach these goals, strategies must be developed to reduce energy consumption and drive energy generation toward renewable resources and/or resources that minimize toxicity and contaminants during construction, production, and dismantlement. Materials must be chosen that provide the most functional value with the least lifecycle environmental impacts. Furthermore, pollutants, toxic chemicals, greenhouse gases, and other potential contaminants must be eliminated as much as possible throughout the packaging development, production, use, redeployment, and disposal lifecycle.

Sustainable Food Packaging Design Waterfall

The concept of food safety as the primary element in sustainable packaging decisions must logically flow through an organization from the top down, through the key relevant vertical groups—operations; packaging design; marketing; environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG); corporate social responsibility (CSR); and, of course, sustainability.

Corporate management must clearly define its sustainability attitudes, beliefs, goals, timelines, and metrics. These must be translated into overall packaging objectives that contribute to the achievement of the overall corporate goals. Stated within these beliefs should be a clear and compelling discussion of the decision-making roles played by science and financial accounting (reality); and consumers and other stakeholders (perceptions).

Food and human safety, nutritional value, appetite and taste appeal, and food waste reduction are the non-negotiable drivers for primary packaging development, from the time the product leaves the factory until the consumer prepares and serves it. Ease of use factors (storage, portion control, preparation, and closure) are also critical and will be based on consumer expectations and needs, as well as contributions to the above-mentioned primary drivers.

The primary environmental driver should be waste reduction. Energy consumption, greenhouse gas generation, and solid waste going to landfills are to be minimized. This includes food waste throughout the "pack to plate" cycle.

What Does All This Mean to Food Safety Professionals?

Many of the sustainable packaging goals and trends mentioned above can affect food safety work. For example, new materials, especially in the compostable area, may not have the barrier properties needed to keep food safe. It is important that a company's packaging design group, and even more importantly, the marketing team, is aware of the need to thoroughly test these materials for proper barrier protection very early in the evaluation process.

Many paper-based innovations are starting to appear that eliminate PFAS in favor of new coatings that claim grease resistance and recyclability. While this is news in the right direction, these paper-based packaging materials also need to be analyzed for potential chemicals of concern, along with grease resistance testing for specific applications.

It is important to remind your marketing and packaging teams that while source reduction has always been, and will continue to be, the most efficient and effective way to reduce waste, too much material reduction can create packaging damage that leads to food waste and contamination. Product protection is still the most effective way to reduce both economic and environmental waste, while maximizing food safety. Keep up the good work!

Robert (Bob) M. Lilienfeld is Executive Director of the Sustainable Packaging Research, Information, and Networking Group (SPRING), which provides science-based, material-neutral information to the packaging industry, policymakers, and consumers. He is also President of Robert Lilienfeld Consulting, which has been working for over 25 years with packaging industry material producers, converters, and consumer packaged goods companies.