JFS R: Concise Reviews/Hypotheses in Food Science
Food Packaging—Roles, Materials,
and Environmental Issues
KENNETH MARSH, PH.D., AND BETTY BUGUSU, PH.D.
The Institute of Food Technologists has issued this Scientific Status Summary to update readers on food packaging and its impact on the environment.
Keywords: food packaging, food processing
dvances in food processing and food packaging play a primary role in keeping the U.S. food supply among the safest in the world. Simply stated, packaging maintains the benefits
of food processing after the process is complete, enabling foods to travel safely for long distances from their point of origin and still be wholesome at the time of consumption. However, packaging technology must balance food protection with other issues, including energy and material costs, heightened social and environmental consciousness, and strict regulations on pollutants and disposal of municipal solid waste.
Municipal solid waste (MSW) consists of items commonly thrown away, including packages, food scraps, yard trimmings, and durable items such as refrigerators and computers. Legislative and regulatory efforts to control packaging are based on the mistaken perception that packaging is the major burden of MSW. Instead, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that approximately only 31% of the MSW generated in 2005 was from packaging-related materials, including glass, metal, plastic, paper, and paperboard—a percentage that has remained relatively constant since the 1990s despite an increase in the total amount of MSW. Nonpackaging sources such as newsprint, telephone books, and office communication generate more than twice as much MSW (EPA 2006a). Food is the only product class typically consumed 3 times per day by every person. Consequently, food packaging accounts for almost two-thirds of total packaging waste by volume (Hunt and others 1990). Moreover, food packaging is approximately 50% (by weight) of total packaging sales. Although the specific knowledge available has changed since publication of the 1st Scientific Status Summary on the relationship between packaging and MSW (IFT 1991), the issue remains poorly understood, complicating efforts to address the environmental impact of discarded packaging materials. This article describes the role of food packaging in the food supply chain, the types of materials used in food packaging, and the impact of food packaging on the environment. In addition, this document provides an overview of EPA’s solid waste management guidelines and other waste manage-
ment options. Finally, it addresses disposal methods and legislation on packaging disposal.
Roles of Food Packaging
he principal roles of food packaging are to protect food products from outside influences and damage, to contain the food, and to provide consumers with ingredient and nutritional information (Coles 2003). Traceability, convenience, and tamper indication are secondary functions of increasing importance. The goal of food packaging is to contain food in a cost-effective way that satisfies industry requirements and consumer desires, maintains food safety, and minimizes environmental impact.
Food packaging can retard product deterioration, retain the beneficial effects of processing, extend shelf-life, and maintain or increase the quality and safety of food. In doing so, packaging provides protection from 3 major classes of external influences: chemical, biological, and physical. Chemical protection minimizes compositional changes triggered by environmental influences such as exposure to gases (typically oxygen), moisture (gain or loss), or light (visible, infrared, or ultraviolet). Many different packaging materials can provide a chemical barrier. Glass and metals provide a nearly absolute barrier to chemical and other environmental agents, but few packages are purely glass or metal...