The Possibilities of Plastic: Saving Food through Innovative Packaging

By Jeff Wooster, Global Sustainability Leader, Dow Chemical Company

Current food production is enough to feed the undernourished and malnourished populations of the planet. But, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), one-third of food produced today is wasted. Meanwhile, FAO also estimates that almost 870 million people worldwide are undernourished and the Environmental Protection Agency credits food waste as the second-largest component in the U.S. solid waste stream (after paper and paperboard). Although many groups are addressing food waste, they are missing the opportunity to add better packaging as an additional tool to reduce food loss and increase food security.PEPouch_FrozenFoods.JPG

When picturing sustainable food systems many people don’t imagine how plastic packaging could be incorporated, but what is important to remember is that sustainability is about the entire lifecycle of the product and package together. This “lifecycle thinking” approach considers more than just one step in the supply chain process: it’s a comprehensive view of a product from cradle to grave.

So, where does plastic play a role? Lightweight, durable and flexible – the protective properties of plastic packaging make it one of the world’s most sustainable products for preserving a food’s freshness.

The Value of Packaging

High-performance plastic packaging, that can extend food shelf life and minimize spoilage, offers significant opportunities to reduce waste while having a valuable impact on food supply and global sustainability.

Plastic packaging's innovative design and proven performance helps enable food to travel from the farm to the table with minimal waste. Right-sized packaging, resealables and ready meals help reduce consumer food waste, while increasing convenience by making packages easy to handle, open, close and optimize contents. Abuse-resistant plastics and barrier layers increase package durability, extend food quality and prevent food contamination.

According to the Industry Council for Research and Packaging on the Environment (INCPEN), flexible plastic packaging helps reduce in-store waste from 3 percent to less than 1 percent by increasing shelf life. Take, for example, a cucumber. Without packaging, a cucumber will last about three days on a store shelf. When wrapped using only a few grams of flexible plastic packaging that same cucumber will stay fresh for as long as 14 days (INCPEN).Similarly, dairy products’ shelf life can be greatly improved by packaging.  Currently, transporting dairy products is costly for countries with limited access to cold chain logistics. Innovative packaging designs for milk pouches are making the transportation of milk without refrigeration possible. This milk can remain unrefrigerated for up to 9 months.


Packaging food for protection and preservation has benefits that extend beyond reducing waste: packaging can also lead to reductions in land use, water use, raw material and energy consumption, greenhouse gas generation and solid waste. Take an 8-ounce steak, for example. If that goes to waste, so does the 6.5 pounds of wheat (Stanford University) and 1,200 gallons of water (Water Education Foundation) it took to produce that half-pound portion alone. Since the package helps protect the product, it also helps protect the environment by minimizing the waste of all the resources related to damaged and spoiled products.

Consider Packaging

By extending the lifecycle of food and protecting it against destructive factors, smart packaging ensures that we can feed the world with provisions that are nutritious and safe to consume. If we want to improve the sustainability of our food system, then we must consider using innovative packaging as one of the methods to increase food security.

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