The Kitchen Sink

Better living through plastic.

Second in a three-part series on food and the environment.

“Without packaging, we could not have an industrialized society,” intoned Aaron Brody, president of Packaging/Brody Inc., pointing to the sentence on his PowerPoint presentation. He repeated the phrase, drawing out industrialized society to emphasize its significance to those attending a four-day seminar held at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism in late September.

His rhetoric rang uncomfortably true: Food packaging, from aluminum cans to sealed plastic bags, allows 98 percent of the American population to live in cities far from farms and flocks, letting most of us pursue careers and pastimes completely removed from producing the food we need to survive. Our meat comes on plastic-wrapped Styrofoam trays with a specially designed layer to absorb excess blood. Our prechopped salads are stored in our refrigerators in gas-permeable plastic bags. No one drinks water from a fountain anymore — we buy it in sixteen-ounce bottles.

“Packaging is a holistic system — materials, equipment, distribution, safety, price — designed to protect the product and keep it safe,” Brody told us. Its role in defining and selling the product is profound. As Daniel Imhoff, a journalist working on a book about the environmental impact of packaging, argued soon after, “I’m convinced the packaging is the product. You can’t separate them — the package is simply the last phase in the design.” How else do we differentiate Heinz baked beans from the kind your grandmother made from scratch? What is Smart Squeeze margarine without its container?

According to Brody, packaging accounts for less than seven percent of the total cost of the product. And the weight of packaging per unit of food contained is the lowest in history. Glass, metals, and paperboard have been replaced by lightweight plastics. The packaging industry is already developing intelligent packaging with temperature sensors, oxygen scavengers, self-heating and self-cooling units, and microbial sensors.

Of course, there’s that one small downside: disposal. Imhoff pointed out that paper and packaging materials that can be recycled are being replaced by multiple-layered plastics that cannot be recovered. Brody admitted, “It’s feasible but screamingly expensive to recycle plastic, so we generally don’t.” The journalists in the seminar guiltily eyed their empty Calistoga bottles.

Northern Europe, with its rapidly shrinking landfill space, is starting to make industry responsible for its own waste. In Germany, the 1991 Packaging Ordinance placed the burden of disposal or reuse solely on manufacturers, a move Brody decried as an economic disaster and Imhoff called revolutionary. But America, with its vast expanses of open space, has the luxury to forge ahead with single-serving Lunchables and Gogurts. That is, until the petroleum we make plastic from runs out.

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