When Ann Sackrider, a magazine editor who lives in New York City, goes shopping at her local co-op, she often notices how the food is packaged. She wonders about the meat in its vacuum-packed plastic wrapping and the prewashed lettuce in its plastic case. But what most concerns her, she says, are the plastic bottles of organic juice. "First, I wonder about the toxicity of the plastic, but also the fact that this single-serve bottle won't disintegrate—[it] just doesn't seem to reflect the co-op's values to me."
She's not alone. Many consumers are now more aware of food packaging, for its impact on both health and the environment, says Ronnie Cummins, national director for the Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minn. "What we're hearing is different from a year ago," he says. "Global warming has finally hit home for people, and they are demanding a change in the marketplace."
Achieving ideal packaging
Are plastic containers as bad as some consumers fear? Even though there's some research about the toxicity of such plastics as polycarbonate and polystyrene, the solid evidence about the health effects just isn't there, says Joel Tickner, an assistant professor at the Department of Community Health and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
But the lack of proven research hasn't stopped consumers from demanding safer containers. Customer demand was the driving force behind the return of glass bottles for Eldorado Springs, Colo.-based Eldorado Natural Spring Water, for instance. After company officials conducted a survey to gauge customer satisfaction, they were surprised by the comments from people who wanted to drink water from glass bottles, says Jeremy Martin, vice president of marketing. "People liked the aesthetics of a glass bottle, but they were also concerned about [plastics'] health issues. People feel they can drink from glass with a clear conscience," he says.
"In a global, general sense, there's no ideal packaging," says Jennifer Barckley, Weleda's spokeswoman. The Palisades, N.Y.-based beauty care company offers a variety of packaging depending on the product: high-quality glass bottles to preserve the ingredients in its bath and beauty oils, and food-grade plastics for its baby-care products.
In fact, a better way to think about the ideal package is to think about its life cycle. The goal should be safer forms of consumption and production, Tickner says. For example, take the life cycle of polystyrene, the plastic used in disposable cups, plates and utensils: "It's made from petroleum, a nonrenewable source," he says. "It's a reproductive toxin. You may use it for a day, or at the most several weeks, but then it sits around in a landfill for a thousand years."
Instead, Tickner says, you need to ask certain questions: Do you need the packaging? Is it recyclable? If you're using it once, or for short-term use, is it made of the safest material?
Aiming for sustainability
Many companies have begun to think in such terms. Londonderry, N.H.-based Stonyfield Farm, for instance, has a sustainable packaging team looking into a whole set of long- and short-term goals, says Nancy Hirshberg, vice president of natural resources. "We used to think that the best package was the one that was most recyclable, but we discovered recycling accounts for less than 5 percent of the environmental impact, even though it's what consumers are most concerned about. In reality, most of the impact is in manufacturing, so we are aiming to make our packaging as lightweight as possible," she says, pointing to the yogurt lids the company eliminated two years ago and replaced with a simple foil top.
"At Nature's Path the goal is to use the minimal amount of packaging," says Jyoti Stephens, sustainability and stewardship manager at the Canadian-based company. All of its cereal boxes are now 10 percent smaller, saving 1.3 million liters of water, 942,000 kilowatts of energy and 144 tons of paperboard each year. Another goal is to make the plastic wrapping in certain products more like the biodegradable starch-based plastic that packages food like toaster pastries, Stephens says.
"Consumers are feeling empowered," she says. "They know they can make a difference through the purchases they make."
The circle of life
In fact, the ideal food container would be the one that is biodegradable. "You buy the product, you eat it, then you take the container and put it back in the soil," says Hirshberg. It's that goal that is spurring Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Markets to start using corn-based plastics for its clamshell packaging, and why the state of Maine is looking into making starch-based plastic from potatoes for utensils, Tickner says. Other companies, such as Clif Bar, are starting to use soy-based inks on their packaging; regular ink is toxic and cannot degrade without harming the soil.
A good example of reusable packaging comes from Boulder, Colo.-based Twist, a new company that sells biodegradable sponges. The package, made of recyclable cardboard, turns into a bird feeder. "The sponges we have fit into our goal of creating environmentally friendly products with a simple, smart design. And we wanted our packaging to reflect that," says Brian Ross, chief executive of Twist. Ross says reusable packaging resonated with the people he talked to in Boulder. And he liked the idea of an activity that moms could do with their kids.
But it's not just the natural foods companies that are spearheading the movement. "Big mainstream companies like McDonald's, Pepsi and Starbucks are clamoring to come to the table," says Stonyfield's Hirshberg. And in its big push to go green, Wal-Mart is instituting an environmental impact checklist for all the goods sold in its stores starting next year, with plans to make the list public. Says Cummins of OCA, "I highly doubt that consumers are going to go back the other way. And retailers who get ahead of the curve are going to have an advantage."
Linda Rodgers is a Hoboken, N.J.-based freelance writer.