A recent IPSOS poll points to an interesting dichotomy in the world of food packaging.
More than two in three (68%) Canadians declare that food safety has become a bigger influence in their grocery purchasing since the pandemic started.
Yet, exactly the same number (68%) say that eliminating plastic from food packaging is important, with compostables for leafy greens being the priority.
The perception of the consumer public is that more plastic equals more safety, and producers have responded: plastic use has risen.
Our fellow citizens, it seems, want safer food (i.e., with more packaging), but less of an impact on the environment. Or in other words, more packaging, but less guilt.
Prior to the pandemic, we were receiving calls almost every week from food and beverage companies of all sizes who wanted to take action on packaging, either eliminating aspects of it, or finding alternatives, particularly with single use plastics.
Since March, those calls have pretty much dried up.
On the one hand, it makes sense.
Focus has shifted to COVID-19 requirements (keeping people safe, getting product out the door, or figuring out how to pivot the business). The companies who aren’t driven by an authentic purpose have reprioritized sustainability to the bottom of the priority list. Not enough firms, in my opinion, are properly leveraging sustainability as a mechanism to fast-track recovery, despite the data showing clearly that it is perhaps the most effective tool in the toolbox right now.
But on the other hand, it makes no sense at all.
Adding more packaging to food when there is currently “no evidence of food, food containers, or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19” is actually doing more harm than good.
Please don’t get me wrong here, there is a time and place for packaging – keeping food safe is the top priority, along with ensuring quality and extending shelf life (to allow consumers a longer period of time to consume it); but with respect to COVID-19, more packaging is about the perception of safety, not reality.
The National Zero Waste Council (NZWC) recently published a report entitled “Less Food Loss and Waste, Less Packaging Waste”.
The 174 page report, written by Martin Gooch and his team at VCMI, makes a number of important recommendations that cover the F&B industry, the packaging industry, consumers and municipalities.
One recommendation that stood out for me relates to the need for producers to use their marketing heft to drive responsible behaviours around packaging.
It strikes me that rather than doubling down on single use plastics, following this recommendation would be the most effective way to deal with consumer concerns about COVID-19 transmission through food.
Showcasing the transparency within supply chains, talking about how firms are taking care of their people and ensuring safety at all levels of the chain, and even looking at the health benefits of products are all ideas that I would love to see more of.
We must follow the clear direction that the NZWC report points us towards. The real risk to the food system is from climate change and we need to be focusing all our energies on mitigating that risk, rather than exacerbating it with more packaging for short-term needs.
Consumers will be concerned about food safety for the foreseeable future. But as an industry we need to get really clear with them that they cannot have more packaging and less guilt.
Cher Mereweather, CEO of Provision Coalition Inc., is a Food Industry Sustainability Expert based in Canada
View the original Food in Canada Sustainable Change Column on Page 23 here