Plastic Food Packaging is the Answer – So What is the Question? by Aaron L. Brody

It is only a plastics world, enclosing an earthy planet. Or at least the indispensable food and objects of its inhabitants’ diligence: aircraft, satellites, legs, boats and ships, land vehicles, medicines, water and on and on.  For millennia, we biological creatures derived air, food and water from natural sources – and consequently attained short and tortuous lives. Until the revolution: agriculture which is natural but driven by forces disdainfully named technology. And the derivatives, the products of agriculture, which had to be preserved to distribute to humankind to progress.  To enable fewer to toil in the fields and at sea and more to produce literature, art, health care, and recreation and a happier quality of life for a larger proportion.

Dr. Aaron Brody is an institution in the world of food science, particularly in the world of food packaging. He is not shy about expressing his opinions and presents a much more pro-industry perspective than I do. I have had the honor of co-teaching a graduate-level course in Chilled Foods where I am sure I learned as much about the topic as any of our students. I am pleased to provide his perspective on plastic food packaging for your consideration.

Spreading the wealth of the land required protection for natural elements such as air and water and ubiquitous microorganisms. And so man and/or woman invented packaging to intercept the universe’s bad actors using animal hides, ceramics, metal, glass and later cellulose polymers aka paper.  Was it only two centuries ago in our billions of eons that wrapping, canning, unitizing emerged to intervene between the natural environment and that which we needed for sustenance?

Some of us still extant vivid have memories of (breakable, shatter prone and chippable) glass bottles of milk and water,  and (virtually impenetrable) steel cylinders of brownish green beans, and wooden boxes nailed as tightly as coffins all of which required muscular arms and backs to heft. Accompanied by cries of contaminated municipal water supplies, swollen cans, food borne illnesses, moldy cheese and filthy fruits. Came the mid twentieth century and a few daring scientists dared to concoct significantly more functional structures and materials to better contain our goods in transit from natural sources to consumer eating venues.

Stuff called cellophane and aluminum foil and, horrors, plastic polymers, burst into our consciousness to more efficiently protect our needs.  How many have recall or have read of the joy accompanying almost unbreakable and lightweight plastic water and milk bottles, flexible plastic film pouches to assemble chips and confections, thermoformed coextruded plastic microwaveable trays and bowls, polyethylene film case and pallet wraps? All were joyously welcomed as superb solutions to the now rapidly expandable planetary population.

plastic take-away tray from a salad bar
Broccoli salad in a plastic take-away tray

Plastics were the nomenclatures for every day “necessities” such as nylons, Plexiglass and acrylics. And in 1967, Benjamin Braddock received the magic advice that endures as one the greatest utterings of American literature: “PLASTICS” – complemented by an almost whispered “There is a great future in plastics!” From that platform, or in spite of it, plastic and its sub category plastic packaging grew exponentially to pervade our entire lives. We cheered for plastic and employed it for almost everything – from a flag on the moon to nipples for baby’s feeding. Plastic comprises about one third of packaging. Functional, minimal energy, a “perfect fit” to embrace food, drugs, household goods and the progenitor of convenience such as squeezable bottles, foaming dispensers, cook-in prepared foods, zip-open and close pouches, industrial fluids, and on and on matter of fact daily routine.

But how much of a good thing might we endure:  within the last half century as plastic packaging performed magnificently, vinyl chloride monomer residuals in polyvinyl chloride film and sheet were indicted for causing some adverse effects in humans. Acrylonitrile monomer was similarly accused. Styrene monomer produced an obviously toxic odor. They all had chemical and/or unpronounceable names and so, by definition, were bad for health, welfare and the environment from whence they came.

cheese products and kielbasa in plastic packages
Plastic packaging protects cheese and meats

Because plastic packaging is so durable, it does not degrade to dust in finite time. In one of this century’s anomalies, sanitary landfills which did not decompose most plastic were constructed with plastic film to reduce proximate environmental contamination. And because plain folks do not favor efficient plastic to energy facilities in their back – or front-yards, that avenue of disposal was almost closed.   Not satisfied with anything about plastics, the vocal minority identified dozens if not hundreds of evils caused by plastics. The most dangerous threat to our species is plastic waste.  Much more so than the 30+++% of food wasted (which can be significantly reduced by the implementation of plastic packaging throughout the system.)

From the savior of the world to the most malevolent in less than fifty years. Remember the oft repeated picture of the duck with its beak trapped in a plastic ring multipacker – not the only fake communication of the twentieth century. Remember the skunk caught in the reverse taper polystyrene yogurt cup?  All the while, plastic packaging continued to penetrate our lives — unit portion water soluble pouches for washing compounds – not food but close enough. Spun bonded polyolefin wraps for homes also used widely for the special needs of medical device packaging? Does any reader drink coffee or chocolate brewed from plastic pods? Or take advantage of the convenience of semi-permeable plastic film bagged salad vegetables? Or squirt polyester (pronounceable) bottles ketchup over her Impossible burger? Or smear cream cheese from a portion control thermoformed plastic cup over his Sunday morning bagel?

Reaching back into recent history, we reread our archived best-selling book “Packaging in Perspective,” a compendium of the benefits of packaging to the consuming public and the environment. Nowhere in this volume is any mention of sustainability, today’s rallying cry to preserve our planet. Were we just dumb, or not visionary? Or does perspective have a real meaning of prioritizing our objectives: packaging must protect its contents in order to preserve our celestial body. And then we can delve into the complexities of infinite natural resource preservation.

Sustainability is a noble cause, but must not take precedence over functionality. It is hardly miraculous that over zillions of years man and womankind have contained their foods in a succession of functional structures including animal skins, parchment, ceramics, wood, paperboard, and now plastic, continuously improving its properties to meet the technical, social and economic requirements. Will plant derived plastics overtake hydrocarbon polymers as the structures of choice? Possibly eventually, but at what cost? Tune in next decade for a better forecast.

The battle has been joined: on one side the consumers who enjoy the fruits of plastic food packaging on an almost minute-by-minute basis, and on the other side, those who vote for sustainability first. And reinforcing the noisemakers is a cadre of blue water protectionists who have uncovered the latest menace, oceanic and microplastics incorporated into sea life, and women who consume seafood containing those contemptuous bites of plastic. Did any one of the detractors ever gaze down from the International Space Station on the vastness of our oceans? Or count the fish in the sea? Did any one of the shouters ever weigh the drowned plastic fishing nets torn apart by wear and sharks – which if you did not know are natural? Or sunken vessels – which seem to be proliferating? Have those who loudly advocate the end of hydrocarbon plastics ever chop wood for fire-generated warmth to preserve the in-ground resources?

disposable plastic milk bottles
Plastic milk containers are not as heavy or as fragile as glass

Elon Musk, when will you transport us to Mars, the plastic–free utopia of the solar system so that we shall never again be compelled to decide between paper or plastic?

Before we depart this rambling dissertation, we deem it necessary to express our learned and considered vision for tomorrow and tomorrow for food packaging plastics. We begin by dropping some more statistics that might serve as background. In the industrialized world, nearly sixty percent of packaging is for food. An inverse relationship may be calculated for food versus packaging in the entire world. About one third of all plastic is directed towards packaging. And, as is intuitively obvious, the end of plastic straws will not bring lasting peace to the world. And the return of daily milk in reusable glass bottles, bread and cake delivery and weekend distribution of freshly baked bagels and lox will probably lead to campaigns for the nostalgic return of horse-drawn wagons (to further conserve our precious hydrocarbon fuels) to place food and beverages at our doorsteps. And mineral filled plastic synthetic paper to save our forests.

In the short and long term, more plastic will be employed to advance food protection, because, of course, population numbers are increasing. Food volume and diversity will expand exponentially as more cuisines are incorporated into our diets. (Incredible how unpronounceables – and unspellables such as dim sum, sushi, surimi, enchilladas, empanadas, lokshen kugel, borscht, goulash, poutine and pho among too many others have permeated our society, mostly packaged in plastic to reach our kitchens and microwave ovens.)

All of these exemplars are received in away from home dining facilities or prepared from scratch if you have a Jewish, Asian, Hispanic, Russian, Canadian, etc. grandmother. Or probably more commonly processed or even ultraprocessed (what a delightful and flavorful fate for food ingredients – being incorporated into a recipe,  ultraprocessed, effectively encapsulated in (plastic) package structures, conveniently prepared and happily consumed by mainstream diners of all persuasions.) (Is it ultrapackaging when a capsule is boron glass sealed by fusing the material to itself? The structure is inert and virtually a total barrier, resistant to compressive forces, transparent to ensure that the purchaser can examine the contents visually and 100% recyclable – ah yes, what a wonderful perfect world when we imagine ourselves cuisine artistes.)

Per capita plastic packaging volume will decrease as we lightweight further to reach the unreachable whisper-thin functionality. Functionalities on the horizon include smart packaging, engineered to sense the internal and/or external package environments – and eventually to respond productively by altering characteristics that enhance the contents. Sensing changes in deterioration patterns that trigger ethylene absorption or water vapor addition or oxygen removal.

Think of extension of silver salt-based additives with antimicrobial properties. Or technologies that emit delightful aromas, not to generate addiction but to please the palate because, as everyone knows, scent is integral to flavor. Then there are those electronic devices useful to mechanize selection and checkout – and to link directly with the purchaser or consumer or her/his bank or all of the above. They sing and talk and update scoreboards and inform and respond to questions and assist in preparation. Plastic packages that act almost as humans interfacing the consumer with Big or Little Food.

The issue of “single use plastics” such as check out bags and polyester water bottles promises to remain but diminished. Technical solutions abound – from recycling into derivative poly s (poly means more than one – as in fiber, a polysaccharide); to incorporation into other plastic entities (the good old park bench being one), incineration to capture the energy, to sanitary landfill to serve as golf courses, ski slopes and green parks. Are they, or any future technologies, economically viable and/or socially acceptable and/or safe?

We have progressed far from inert polymers and laminations and will continue to grow plastic packaging to enhance contained food and its delivery to enable filling consumer nutritional needs and desires.  Fascinating observation: the more attractive the food sensorially the higher the probability the consumer will consume the food. In the future we should expect more advanced food packaging functions – temperature control, enzyme control, internal atmospheric control, biochemical suppression, all and more derived from the manipulation of plastics for food packaging.

Thus, dear reader, we foresee a glorious tomorrow for man and woman kind in dispensing of essential nutrition to a greater proportion of the population – a modern manna from heaven – and lots more pleasure from the eating experience – due in large part to the always positive role of plastic in food packaging.

Dr. Aaron Brody has been recognized as one of the foremost authorities in food packaging. He received his PhD in Food Technology from MIT in 1956. He taught numerous food science courses at the University of Georgia but was most well-known for his required Food Packaging course. He has authored or co-authored many textbooks including Modified Atmosphere Packaging for Fresh-Cut Fruits and Vegetables. For more information on Dr. Brody see his Wikipedia page.   

Next week: Plastics vs. food waste–What’s worse? by Susan Chen and Lily Yang

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