Searching for sustainable packaging

Sometimes life gives us lessons sent in ridiculous packaging. — Dar Williams, pop folk singer-songwriter

Responsible product packaging is easily one of the biggest — and in some aspects most ridiculous — challenges faced by sustainably-minded members of the food industry. It is a perfect example of good intentions being way out in front of enough good options to support them.

A priority for PCC, sustainable packaging is almost a daily topic of discussion. As a natural foods store our focus is on food, but as a business committed to operating as sustainably as possible, the items used to protect, transport and display our food are equally as important.

We have some influence over pre-packaged items we sell, everything from cereal to body lotion, in that our merchandisers make it clear to suppliers that PCC gives preference to products with minimal packaging. But sourcing sustainable packaging for products from our perishable departments — produce, meat & seafood, bakery and deli — is an ongoing and uphill battle.

Defining sustainable packaging

The basic requirements for acceptable packaging are that it be safe and effective. Packaging manufactured such that the use of renewable materials is maximized and energy needed to transport it is minimized gets our attention, as well as packaging that is easily recycled or composted. Cost is a factor, too, but as the packaging industry is still behind the sustainability curve with few options and limited capacity, higher costs for sustainable packaging are a given for the short term.

The meat tray dilemma

PCC’s ongoing search for new meat trays brings all of the above factors to light. Even before the Seattle City Council voted this year to ban the use of “foam” (polystyrene, aka Styrofoam) food service products as of July 2010, PCC was looking for alternatives to the foam trays still used in our meat and seafood departments.

Foam trays do offer certain advantages. They are light-weight, inexpensive and don’t wick moisture out of the product. But they are made from extruded polystyrene foam (XEPS) which is manufactured from styrene, a petroleum derivative associated with a variety of health issues. (It is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.) And XEPS does not biodegrade so, when disposed of, the trays end up in landfills where styrene residues leak into the ground. If burned, toxic fumes are released into the atmosphere.

Foam tray alternatives present their own challenges. Trays are made from corn starch, bagasse (sugarcane fiber), PLA (polyactic acid resin), wood pulp, and palm fiber, just to name a few ingredients. Corn-based material is a red flag as almost all domestically-grown corn has been genetically modified and therefore violates PCC’s standards as a certified organic retailer. But as big an obstacle to sourcing acceptable ingredients is the fact that all meat tray alternatives now available are manufactured in either Asia or Europe. This means they have to be shipped thousands of miles, using lots of non-renewable energy, before they reach PCC’s meat and seafood departments.

Even if issues of meat tray safety, performance, environmental impact, and cost are resolved, there’s still more to consider. One is disposal. Just because a manufacturer promotes a meat tray as compostable, doesn’t mean it will be approved by Cedar Grove, the organic recycling company that serves the greater Seattle market. And, as odd as this may seem, several tray alternatives are made to be virtually identical to foam, which only makes distinguishing them from those we’re trying to replace virtually impossible.

Recently we evaluated a meat tray that looked great, performed well and, with the exception that it’s made in China, seemed promising … until we took a stack into one of our meat departments to test — not for strength or absorption, but for ease in use. The trays stuck together, considerably adding to labor costs in that each tray had to be pried away from the stack.

Where do we go from here?

The number of obstacles to overcome in finding a simple meat tray does seem to border on ridiculous but that (we’ve found) is the nature of packaging. We’d like to know what you think. What are the most important considerations for the packaging of the products you buy? And if you happen to know about a domestically manufactured, non-GMO, reasonably priced meat tray that won’t leak inside your reusable shopping bag … please let us know!

More about: packaging, sustainability

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Ideas? Contact:
Diana Chapman
Director of Sustainability

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