A Plea to Consumers and the Food Industry Regarding Our Packaging Problem

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We have a packaging problem.

And if we’re going to get our arms around it, we have to think, innovate and behave way beyond recycling.

Our use-once-and-throw-away-culture has caught up with us. The first two articles below are proof that the negative effects of our packaging and plastic waste are not a prognosis for the future, but what is happening right now. The last article shares evidence that what we once thought to be viable packaging solutions, we’re now learning may actually cause more harm than what they replaced.

I urge you to read all three and do so with a warning: if you care about food and the environment like I do, you’ll likely find yourself feeling helpless and frustrated. But let’s not forget each and every one of us can absolutely make small changes that collectively add up to big change.

“It’s raining plastic: microscopic fibers fall from the sky in the Rocky Mountains” - The Guardian

“Idyllic Caribbean Island Covered In A Tide of Plastic Trash Along Coastline” - Forbes

”Study: the “forever chemicals” in your takeout bowl may pose more dangers than previously thought.” - The New Food Economy

What bothers me most is that we haven’t even made a dent in changing our throw-away behaviors, and we just don’t have the luxury to live that way anymore.

Like a good friend that tells you what you really need to hear, I’m respectfully asking key stakeholder groups to do what they can to help make a difference.

Consumers
Remember when 9/11 happened and all of a sudden we had no choice but to be inconvenienced with tougher security at airports? Most of us embraced the inconvenience knowing it was for the greater good. That’s the same attitude and grit we’ll need to tackle the packaging problem. You’ll notice I said “us/we.” I’m not above reproach and am always challenging myself to do better. Here are a few thoughts for all of us to consider:

  • While recycling is definitely important, we’re beyond just doing that. The reality is we need to stop using materials that don’t biodegrade and cause harm to earth in the first place, and that requires digging deep to change our behaviors.

  • Enough is enough with the throw-away coffee cups from our favorite cafes. There’s no excuse not to purchase a re-usable mug and use it! The silver lining: coffee/tea stays hotter/colder for longer.

  • Let’s make a concerted effort to purchase produce, meat, fish and other fresh food options without any packaging—or at the very least no plastic—as much as possible. Let’s choose the unpackaged tomatoes and lettuce vs. the ones in the clam shell. If you can’t find cauliflower not packaged in plastic, well then so be it. In fact, passing over such items may send a message to the producer to change their practices. Ordering meat and fish from the deli counter wrapped in paper vs. the grab-and-go options packaged in plastic and styrofoam is another small sacrifice to make.

  • Let’s reward the companies offering their packaged products in recyclable paper and glass vs. plastic, as well as in larger sizes. And we’ve got to just say no to individually-wrapped servings. It doesn’t take long to repackage individual servings from a larger package into reusable to-go containers.

  • While eating on-the-go isn’t completely avoidable, let’s eat more meals at home and sitting down at restaurants, where dishes are served on real plates, glasses and silverware. The silver lining, and there is research to show this: eating at a table without distractions using all of your senses results in greater satisfaction, which means you are less likely to walk away from that meal wanting for more. A great weight management tool if that’s of concern to you. in addition, there is research to show that sitting down to more meals as a family results in better social and communications skills in kids.

  • Single-use plastic baggies, utensils and straws are a hard habit to break, but it’s liberating to replace them with reusable containers and personal metal straws and utensil sets.

Food Manufacturers
There came a time when big tobacco could no longer make excuses for their products. I hate to say it guys, but it’s your time to step up and take responsibility for the significant role you play in our packaging problem (hint, hint: the word package is literally in your industry name of Consumer Packaged Goods).

  • Many of you are making true efforts and I applaud them, but many of you are not. And just because one brand in your portfolio is environmentally-conscious and taking action, does not absolve the other brand teams of being complacent. Each and every brand team in your portfolio needs to be aggressively addressing the problem.

  • I value incremental packaging changes and every bit of reduction helps, but we’re beyond greenwashing…you’ve got to think big. Be the heroes in this story. I really want you to be the heroes.

Retailers, Foodservice and Hospitality Providers
I have to say, this is the group that I’ve seen the most substantial efforts being made…so kudos to you. The one sub-group I want to address here are the buyers. You are powerful decision makers…

  • If you have the option of choosing one brand over another to stock your shelves or fill your pantries, you have the power (and I believe responsibility) to make the right choice.

  • You also have the power to say to a manufacturer/supplier that is pitching their products to you that you are happy to buy from them once they make significant packaging changes…but not until then. That sends a strong message for them to reconsider their packaging priorities. Use that power!

Angel and Institutional Investors
I get it, your goal is to make money. But…your investments can be a part of the solution or a part of the problem, and right now I see the majority of investment going to brands that are contributing to the problem. You have the power to effect real change, and here is where I extend the conversation beyond packaging waste.

  • When having conversations with the brands you are considering investing in, can’t you make investment contingent upon moving to more sustainable packaging? Perhaps I am ignorant, but I don’t see why this can’t be your way of taking a stance on our packaging problem.

  • I urge you to consider investing beyond trendy better-for-you snacking. Collagen-infused chips and CBD sodas—even when packaged more responsibly—are not the brands feeding the global population and fixing our food systems (I recognize there are a few out there). Investing in such companies means you are not investing in the companies and the science and innovation institutions that are truly addressing our problems.

  • Just like you do your operational and financial due diligence before investing in a brand, please also do your nutrition and environmental sustainability research. I see too much investment and attention going into “darling” trends that on the surface claim to be fixing our food systems, but, upon deeper inspection, may really not be. One example is the next gen meat alternatives where both the nutrition and sustainability claims being made by brands are being questioned by the experts.

The Food Media
Consumers today want to do the right thing and like to support companies making a truly positive impact. You are in the very unique position to educate them and help raise awareness about the organizations making a difference. I have a couple of requests:

  • When reporting about specific products, make sure to include packaging information. Is that beverage you are bringing attention to packaged in recyclable glass or aluminum vs. non-recyclable plastic? Just like you share pricing and nutrition information, I urge you to share packaging details so consumers can make informed decisions.

  • For those of you that write favorite product articles, take a stand and stand out by featuring products making true efforts to reduce their packaging footprint.

  • Prioritize articles and get quotes from experts that teach consumers about how to reduce their packaging use. Consistent reminders are what we all need to make behavior changes.

The last thing I’ll leave you with is sharing organizations that are thinking about systemic change when it comes to tackling our packaging problem. The first is called UPSTREAM and they are an organization with behavior change ideas worth paying attention to. The second is Gingko Bioworks that just offered a three-month residency to someone who has an idea that intersects creative design with synthetic biology to create a world without waste. I can’t wait to see what comes out of that residency!

Know of any organizations doing eye-opening work to prevent packaging waste? Please do share their efforts below in the comments box so we can all learn about them and support them.