The CIRAIG just released a study on packaging waste and food waste. Here is a summary of the results:

What pollutes more: packaging waste or food waste?

“In Canada, about 11 Mt of food waste per year could be avoided. This represents 22Mt of CO2eq and 1.4 billion tonnes of water that could be saved.

Food packaging

Food packaging plays a crucial role in the fight against food waste since its main role is to protect food throughout the supply chain, to maintain its nutritional and organoleptic properties, and to extend its shelf life. In fact, packaged fresh products can be kept 2 to 10 times longer than unpackaged ones. Of course, a distinction must be made here between useful packaging and unnecessary over-packaging, which must be combated in all cases. 

Food packaging itself has an environmental cost, mainly due to its production, the importance of which varies according to the food. For example, the packaging of fruits, vegetables and beverages accounts for an average of 9% to 33% of greenhouse gases over their life cycle; and less than 3% for dairy products, cereals, meat and fish. Basically, the higher the footprint of the food production, the lower the proportional impact of the packaging and therefore the more worthwhile it is to use packaging to prevent food waste.”

Avoiding food waste

“The National Zero Waste Council points out that for most foods, eliminating primary packaging results in a reduction in GHGs that does not offset even a small increase in waste. In other words, if you know there is a risk that you will waste a food, you are better off buying it packaged. Packaging is therefore mostly useful for foods that do not keep well or with a high environmental footprint. Bulk would be more adapted for dry, resistant and long-lasting foods.

Finally, for zero waste to be beneficial for the environment, we must learn to store our food properly to avoid increasing food waste and reuse our containers to reduce the impact of their production.”

Plastic bag or alternative, what is the best choice?

“Conventional single-use plastic bags are very thin, weigh about 8 grams and are often reused as garbage bags, which contributes to reducing their impact. The life cycle environmental impact of a bag is equivalent to driving a hundred meters in a car and comes mainly from the plastic manufacturing stage. If 4% of these bags are then abandoned in nature, we do not yet know how much impact this plastic pollution has on the environment.

Not the worst, conventional plastic bags?

According to the CIRAIG study on shopping bags in Quebec, conventional plastic bags perform better than other disposable bags because they are lighter and therefore require less material and energy over their life cycle. 

The impact of a paper bag is 4 to 28 times higher than a plastic bag. In order to become less impactful, this paper bag would have to replace between 4 and 28 plastic bags, and therefore be reused between 4 and 28 times. The same reasoning applies to thick plastic or bioplastic bags, which would have to be reused between 2 and 11 times to become better than plastic bags.

What about reusable bags?

Regarding reusable bags, their performance compared to disposable plastic bags depends mostly on the number of times they are reused, knowing that a thick plastic reusable bag is about 10 times less impactful than a cotton reusable bag. But if you shop every week with the same reusable plastic bags for 1-2 years, you should be okay!

In general, why is plastic often better than other alternatives?

Because even though its impact per kilogram is higher than other materials such as aluminum or glass, on average 2 to 8 times less plastic is needed to perform the same function. It is therefore the number of times that materials can be reused that will eventually dethrone plastic.”

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