Consuming one full English breakfast every day for a year would produce 2,112kg of greenhouse gas emissions — that’s the equivalent of driving a car from Paris to Mumbai. Here, Miguel Campos at food packaging supplier Advanta, investigates ways to make our diets more environmentally friendly.
Despite the general view that the standard British diet is made up of meat and two vegetables, the number of people on plant-based diets was estimated to reach 3.5 million in 2018. This may be related to the storm of media coverage condemning the environmental impact of animal agriculture. However, just because a diet is plant-based does not necessarily mean it is environmentally friendly.
There are many factors that come into play when considering the environmental impact of food. This includes water consumption required to grow and process the food, distance to market and importantly, how well the product keeps when in storage.
For example, almonds, avocado and rice have all been condemned for their negative environmental impact. Almonds in particular have been noted to require an entire gallon of water to produce just one measly nut. As California produces 82% of the world’s almonds, and is currently experiencing its fourth consecutive annual drought, growing demand for almonds is receiving some of the blame.
But, what are we supposed to eat? It is unlikely that all highly polluting products will ever be completely cut out of the world’s diets. As such, it will become increasingly important to make sure that processed produce is stored in a sustainable way. While production may have a negative impact on the environment, ensuring long shelf-lives for products can help to tackle another area of sustainability, food waste.
One way of making sure products last longer is by packaging them using modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) or controlled atmosphere packaging (CAP). This describes a method of storing products which contains the food in a high carbon dioxide environment, preventing bacteria growth and therefore prolonging the product’s shelf life. Similarly skin pack is a suitable alternative for extending shelf life.
For respiring products, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, the aim is to minimise its respiration rate. For non-respiring products, such as cooked poultry or fresh pasta, it's all about minimising microbial growth as the main spoilage parameter. Fresh poultry, for example, normally has a shelf life of three to ten days but can withstand six to 21 days with MAP.
For food manufacturers, adopting MAP requires a switch to compatible packaging. Incidentally Advanta food trays are not only made from fully recyclable aluminium, but are also fully compatible with MAP, CAP and skin pack sealing methods.
Another consideration when adapting diets for environmental reasons is the packaging in which food is kept. Reducing consumption of high carbon emissions foods is positive, but these efforts are undone if the same consumer depends on single-use plastics when purchasing food.
Following the European Parliament’s vote to ban the use of single-use plastics, which was finalised in December 2018, the industry is likely to see a greater reliance on alternative materials. This includes greater use of recyclable aluminium.
Change is hard, but when the consumption of one English breakfast per day is creating enough pollution to travel halfway across the world, things have to change. Whether it is adopting plant-based eating or avoiding foods that cause environmental damage through droughts and transportation, as consumer’s diets change for the greener good, food manufacturers’ approach to packaging must also adapt.