When Packaging Helps

On Monday, the Freakonomics Blog made a, well, economical case for why we should care more about food waste than packaging waste. Writing as a Super Freak(onomics member), James McWilliams provided a neat summary of why I don’t write more about food packaging.

In a word, it’s methane:

But if you take the packaging away and focus on the naked food itself, you have to realize that the food will be rotting a lot sooner than if it weren’t packaged and, as a result, will be heading to the same place as the packaging: the landfill. Decaying food emits methane, a greenhouse gas that’s more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Packaging — unless it’s biodegradable — does not.

McWilliams used the classic shrink-wrapped cucumber example for how packaging expands food’s lifespan. He explained the comparative environmental stakes with this neat turn of the phrase:

Seems bizarre, but it’s possible that we waste more energy by not scraping the bottom of the barrel than we do by throwing out the barrel when we’re done.

I’d also like to add a word not brought up in the post–hunger. Perhaps it was too obvious and didn’t need stating. But concerning oneself with reducing waste can help feed the hungry, via food recovery. Reducing packaging can’t.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive to reduce packaging, when it’s unnecessary. But just why it’s not as high on my list as trimming food waste.

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  1. Posted February 10, 2010 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Huh. That’s really interesting (and a little bit reassuring, because I can do more to prevent food waste than I can to prevent packaging).

  2. Julius
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    That’s a reasonable argument, and stands quite well on its own. That said, at risk of committing an ‘ad hominem’ fallacy, I’d like to proclaim scepticism of anything said by the Freakonomics gang after the fiasco that was the Superfreakonomics chapter on climate change.

    (If you missed it, the ‘Superfreaks’ essentially proclaimed how silly all those scientists were and it’s much easier just to pump s**tloads of sulphur into the atmosphere to artifically cool the planet, rather than do the hard work of reducing greenhouse gases. Most people who actually have a clue, erm, disagreed, to put it mildly. The Superfreaks reacted by repeatedly contradicting themselves, flip-flopping between ‘we accept climate science, but geoengineering is a better solution’ and ‘climate science is bunk’, and insulting their critics.)

    Sorry if this is a derail of the discussion, and I’m pretty sure McWilliams wasn’t involved in that one, but I just wanted to point out that the Freakonomics crowd’s track record on environmental issues is perhaps a bit questionable.

  3. Posted February 10, 2010 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    @theFrugalGirl–you sure do prevent food waste!

    @Julius–not at all derailing…I kind of missed that fiasco. Head in the book and all that. Thanks for filling us (or me) in. That said, it does seem like a pretty safe argument that landfilling food waste is more harmful than packaging waste.

  4. Tamara
    Posted March 1, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    I think we also need to be aware of the fact that, while some food packaging may be “necessary” and prolong the life of food, some certainly does not. For example, bagged pre-washed salad mixes rot very very quickly compared to a head of lettuce. I’ve never compared a regular cucumber with a shrink-wrapped one, but if a shrink-wrapped one really does last longer, it would seem to be the exception to the rule in my view. Mushrooms are another good example. Mushrooms do much better when bought loose in a paper bag, then when trapped without any oxygen. This is one reason why Trader Joe’s bothers me so much, and I believe, results in more food waste.

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