The director of the Italian Packaging Institute, Marco Sachet looks at the environmental question of single serving packages and whether we should avoid them because of the large amounts of waste they produce. He contends that they are in fact an eco-friendly alternative that can significantly reduce family food waste.
Single serving packaging: When faced with the environmental idea of avoiding single serving packages because they produce large amounts of waste, you contend that they are, contrary to common belief, an attractive eco-friendly option that can significantly reduce family food waste. What do you mean by this?
If we look at packaging without giving thought to the product content, in this case food, the whole debate becomes a rather redundant, half-baked exercise; looking at the environmental question of packaging without considering its function doesn’t make much sense either. We need to understand that package actually does a job which is to ensure that foodstuffs don’t perish and get thrown away. Today we live in a society that in the past tended to interpret life in a very personal way. When I was a child, my mother shopped every day and cooked what she bought every day. We had to eat everything, or else. Today, however, in a family of four it is unlikely that we will always eat together or even share in the same dish, so we end up with everyone eating what they want. Portions have become those of singles. That is not my opinion, it is an observation. Servings have been reduced to meet the needs of the individual. Single serving packaging is nothing less than a response to this new way of living, and it also plays an important role: it prevents us from taking a serving that is not personalized; when this happens, a single person is unlikely to eat all the food in a package for four people, and it is likely that the other servings get thrown away. All highly perishable foods suffer greatly from this problem of waste and milk is a clear example.
New Trends Single serving packaging aside, what are the latest trends in Italy and abroad in terms of innovative and sustainable packaging?
We try to make packaging that fulfills its function, also using as little material and volume as possible, but ultimately it is habit that influences packaging. Who produces packaging has very little power. Companies produce packaging based on ensuring long shelf life. Today's consumer habits are getting worse, because interpreting life in a personal way, they want products in individual sizes. And so packaging increases. You can make packaging lighter, recyclable, but you can’t reduce its quantity.
Packaging in the world Are there substantial differences between one country and another?
In developed countries such as ours, solutions are alike because we have to solve similar problems: move large amounts of product that was available from local stores and at home, under conditions that are designed to maintain perfection. In all countries where this has happened, the packaging has been configured in the same way. Sure, there are countries where packaging has an even greater importance, for example, in Japan, where a single apple is packaged. There, an apple has extremely high value because it is often imported, so they prefer to pack it individually rather than lose it. Here we have so many apples that we don’t even think about it. When it relates to differences in packaging, the WorldStar Awards is a worldwide competition, that judges proposals of renewal, innovation and improvement in packaging all around the world. Packaging is not a product, it is a vehicle for its content. This is demonstrated by the fact that if we were willing as consumers to make less convenient choices, buying, for example, food that is imperfect, we could have simpler packing. We could even do away with packaging if were prepared to make our way to a dairy to buy fresh milk. But can we really imagine that a sustainable future will see us travel from one place to another to get hold of whatever food we want?
Old habits Healthy habits? Our grandmothers shopped using bags made of fabric or paper. Why did that way of shopping get abandoned (and now come back into vogue in recent years)? What was missing for that environmentally-friendly habit to transform into a perfect transport system?
We lack nothing and have houses full of bags. What has happened is that we became a bit thoughtless. For a long time we went to the grocery store without thinking about what we were doing and as bags were given to us free - at least that was the impression - we would go along without bringing a basket. Free bags would be given out, but when they started to make us pay, people started remembering to take a bag with them to the grocery store. What do they do now? They put a bag in a bag or in the trunk of the car and off they go. But what has the bag got to do with it? We are the ones who, of course, did not give importance to it and we stopped where we felt most comfortable. If shopping bags had continued to be handed out at the checkout, what do you think would have happened? I think that we would have continued taking the bags.
Food on tap Among the latest environmental trends is the emergence of supermarkets that sell food on tap or lanes in the most popular supermarkets with individual departments dedicated to loose food. Do you think this new trend will create difficulties for the packaging industry?
Absolutely not. I think it is a worthy proposal for those who appreciate it. But from an environmental point of view I believe that the system can only really work if consumers bring their containers from home. Because if I go to a vending machine for an empty bottle and fill it and then the next time do the same all over again, what in your opinion would I be doing? It’s no different from taking bottles off the shelf already filled with liquid.
E-commerce In the age of e-commerce, how is food packaging changing?
Primary packaging of the product is not changing much. Transportation packaging may change because it has to be more robust. Bear in mind that the science and economy of countries like ours have realized that it is more manageable, cheaper and environmentally friendly to move goods in a rational way. We understand that it is much better to move goods than people.
Consumer errors. Let’s put aside for a moment your role of director. As a consumer which of our habits are, currently, most harmful to the environmental?
Not knowing what we need. If everyone buying food had a clear idea of what they would be eating at home, they would obviously buy only what was needed. But all that has been lost, in the sense that those who go to the grocery store today do not know when food will be consumed. Instead my mom knew how. She would buy it, cook it, feed us and that would be it. That is no longer the case. In addition, we have three storage areas in our homes. The fridge, the freezer and the pantry. In your opinion, is teh person shopping putting the food in one of these three stores, and using the simple principle that the first product to enter should be the first that comes out? There is a lack of awareness that is continuously added. I do not know when food will be consumed and, in addition, I create a store that I do not manage.
Profits How much is the packaging industry in Italy, in Europe and in the world?
Italy, with a turnover of around 29.3 billion euros, represents 5.4% of the world’s production, and is among the ten largest producers of packaging. According to the data of the Italian Institute of Packaging the consolidated figure of the world's packaging in 2013 is estimated at 540 billion euros, mainly in Asia with a 31% share that is on the increase, in North America with 26% and in Western Europe with a share of 23.5%. Here, the area of Eastern Europe (including Russia) has a 9% share, South Central America a total of 6%, Africa, 2.5% and growing, and Oceania 2% in progressive development.
A comparison of packaging Is environmentally-friendly packaging more expensive than traditional packaging?
It depends what you want to achieve. Packaging has a variable cost depending on the function it needs to perform. Do I want a product that maintains its characteristics for a longer? I have to create a more powerful package that will cost more. Do I want avoid that a product gets thrown away? The bottle is a cost to me, but I throw away the milk that is the value to be protected.
Plastisphere In the Pacific Ocean there is a huge island of plastic. It is called Plastisfera and experts estimate that it weighs more than 21 thousand tons. In your opinion, what could be the solutions so that it doesn’t get bigger and bigger? Just biodegradable plastics?
Biodegradable plastics would not float, but it would be there all the same. If we measure a phenomenon only with our senses, we lose a great part of our know-how. What I do know is that if there is a plastisphere it is because people throw away plastic and many other things rather than put them back where they should, thinking that it's legitimate. If people are not conscientious or behave badly, paradoxically we assume that we will remove the plastic, but that just prolongs the bad behavior. Your questions are valid, but do not take into account this point: that we are the cause of this problem, not the material. Personally I do not think that biodegradation is the solution given that will allow us to continue throwing plastic into the environment without thinking of the consequences.
Awareness So you think we require more education on making smart purchases?
Sustainability stems from human beings and their choices, but also from their sacrifices, because to be sustainable they must be willing to give up some comfort. You cannot think that sustainability can be resolved through objects. Of course, there may be a contribution, but the problem is another. As the old saying goes, you cannot have your cake and eat it.