Conventional food production of the modern day, along with packaging and distribution, has been tied to environmental, societal and financial burdens in different parts of the world. The key to alleviating the damage our food production system creates starts with the selection and procurement of sustainably grown and produced products. Food miles, the distance food is transported, and eco-friendly food packaging materials are also important variables of the sustainable food equation. This guide will help your business select food and packaging options that meet your requirements while also having a low environmental impact.
Sustainable Food Sourcing Best Practices
Here’s a list of best practices to consider when determining who you source your food from:
- Source your food as locally as possible. With less time between harvest and acquisition, local food will likely be fresher and closest to its peak freshness. Also, with less travel and shorter delivery vehicle trips, local sourcing reduces the transport distance of food (“food miles”) thus greenhouse gas emissions. HoQ, a popular farm-to-table restaurant in Des Moines, Iowa, serves a “global flavor” while sourcing 90% of its food locally. This effort to support local farmers and food providers is also an effective way to enhance your brand and reputation as the “buy local” movement takes hold of more consumers and communities.
- Buy foods that are in season for your area. Because it’s easier and less resource-intensive to produce foods during their natural growing season, these foods can be produced in abundance thus lowering their price. It’s even more impactful when you can purchase seasonal foods from a local provider. Many popular fruits and vegetables that stay in stock year-long like blueberries and kiwi are often shipped from other countries and contribute to tons of carbon emissions. Developing a green purchasing policy can help your company create a seasonal menu or a sustainable food rotation schedule.
- Source from sustainable and ethical food providers. Businesses have an obligation to source both ethically and sustainably. Staying informed on the business practices of your procurement partners can protect you from malpractice and public relation disasters such as the recent child labor allegations against the world’s top chocolate companies. Simply, responsible sourcing is an act of risk mitigation that avoids legal action and punishment. More importantly, it is your duty to help protect people, communities and the surrounding environment in which food is produced and processed. As a double positive, this act of good improves your image, attracts more customers and new-hires, and creates a purpose-driven culture that motivates employees. To learn more about sustainable sourcing, read our article Sustainable Business Practices for the Food and Agricultural Industries.
Sustainable Food Choices
Here’s a list of eco-friendly food choices to consider:
- Use fewer food products and ingredients. Having fewer food products and expiration dates to manage means less spoiled and unused food you will generate. This not only alleviates the world’s food waste problem and the associated landfill emissions, but it also lowers your waste collection costs. It’s a win-win situation.
- Buy foods that are less resource intensive. Due to extensive land, water and resource requirements and the resulting emissions and pollutants, meat and dairy products easily take the cake for foods with the largest carbon footprints. While it may not be practical to eliminate all meat and dairy from your restaurant or workplace cafeteria, consider adjusting the menu to include more plant-based meals. Fruits and tree nuts require less land and water, making these foods a low-carbon option.
- Buy foods that last longer naturally. Legumes and lentils can be stored dry and last much longer than other fresh or canned protein sources. Potatoes and rice are starches that also last longer, even without refrigeration.
- Buy ugly or “misfit” foods. To uphold their aesthetic standards, many retailers will not accept foods that are dented, bumpy or bruised. However, some food providers offer these edible rejects at a discount price. For example, Misfits Market rescues “misfit” produce and grocery items and sells and delivers them at an affordable price. Not only does this divert food waste from landfills, it also encourages food affordability and accessibility.
- Buy foods with low-emission supply chains. Land use and farm-stage processes (i.e. application of fertilizer) account for about 80% of a food’s carbon footprint. However, it’s important to consider all parts of the supply chain.
- Buy organic. Organic food producers are prohibited from using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that threaten water supplies, wildlife and the farm workers that apply them. However, if only non-organic options are available to you, you can be assured that some foods such as broccoli and cabbage are naturally pest-resistant due to their genetic makeup. It is best to always select foods that are not grown and processed with harmful chemicals.
Eco-Friendly Food Packaging Best Practices
Here’s a list of best practices to consider for food packaging:
- Use less packaging. Consider packaging multiple foods together in the same container or choose packaging designs that require less material.
- Use less plastic, in all forms. Petroleum-based plastic packaging is derived from our finite supply of fossil fuels and much of it does not break down completely for hundreds to thousands of years. Under natural conditions, plastics break apart into tiny pieces, known as microplastics, which pollute water supplies and are ingested by both wildlife and humans. Only certain types of plastic are able to be recycled and even then, recycling used items into new material can only happen a few times before the material completely loses its durability and value. Plastic recycling is further flawed by the fact that only a small percentage is actually recycled due to contamination and lack of effort on the consumer side.
- Be careful using bioplastics. Bioplastics, compostable plastics made from plants, are gaining popularity as more packaging producers are making efforts to provide eco-friendly packaging options. However, bioplastics are no better for the environment if they do not make it into the proper waste stream. In fact some countries are banning bioplastics because of false advertising or improper disposal and processing.
- Use 100% biodegradable, compostable and recyclable materials. Choosing packaging that is 100% biodegradable, compostable and recyclable offers an eco-friendly alternative to landfill. However, it is critical to connect with recycling and composting facilities or special collectors that accept such items and ensure proper disposal.
- Keep it simple. Avoid packaging made from multiple materials. Sorting items correctly for recycling is often a confusing activity on its own, especially when items are made from multiple materials such as food boxes with plastic windows. Many consumers may not know to separate the item into its component parts, but oftentimes, disassembly is physically impossible.
As a best practice, purchase packaging made from one material if possible. Barilla, the world’s largest pasta producer, has removed all windows from pasta boxes, making them now 100% recyclable without extra effort needed from the consumer.
Biodegradable vs Compostable Packaging
Both of these terms are often used interchangeably and tend to dissolve some of your guilt when using single-use food packaging. However, they require completely different environments to successfully break down into compounds suitable for nature’s reuptake.
Biodegradable materials are those made from animal, plant, or mineral-based sources and are designed to break down naturally with ease. Naturally occurring microorganisms degrade these materials into near harmless compounds. Plant-based biodegradables are some of the most popular eco-friendly food packaging options on the market today.
Compostable materials are those that break down in a controlled compost environment. For effective degradation, they must be subjected to heat, pressure and a healthy population of microorganisms for a certain period of time. Unlike biodegradables that can sometimes leave behind useless metal residues, compostable materials are designed to release nutrients and add value to soil once they break down.
To recap, all compostable materials are biodegradable but not all biodegradables are compostable. In either case, it is important to locate facilities that accept these materials to ensure that they’re processed in the most efficient and sustainable way possible.
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Eco-Friendly Food Packaging Options For Your Business
Green Paper Products
Green Paper Products offers various types of eco-friendly and compostable food packaging options. From sustainably sourced shopping, trash and sandwich bags to eco-friendly take out containers of all shapes and sizes, Green Paper Products can fill many needs for any business that serves or handles food. They also offer free, carbon-neutral shipping anywhere in the U.S.
The Robinette Company
Family-owned and operated, the Robinette Company, specializes in sustainable flexible film and paper packaging for the food and beverage, nutraceutical, construction, textile and healthcare industries. They offer products containing up to 90% recycled content as well as fully recyclable and compostable options. From bags and pouches to roll stock and more, the Robinette Company can meets a diversity of packaging needs for any business.
In a revolutionary effort to create an eco-friendly packaging option for liquids, Ecologic Brands created the eco.bottle®. The hard outer shell is made from 100% recycled cardboard and newspaper and can be recycled up to seven more times. It is also compost-safe for those in areas in which recycling is not available. The inner BPA-free plastic pouch, is made from 60% less plastic than rigid plastic bottles and includes easy-to-recycle #1 and #4 plastics as well as plant-based bioplastics. The Box to Bottle™ system they use to create their products is a closed-loop system that has diverted 350 tons of plastic from landfills and oceans.
The food and food packaging industries collectively have an enormous environmental impact and, in turn, an impact on people and communities worldwide. One of the best ways for businesses to help alleviate the risks imposed by these industries is through adopting sustainable procurement policies for food and eco-friendly food packaging.
Purchasing food options that are sourced locally and from sustainable and socially responsible providers can help lessen the resource exhaustion, waste and pollution, and social injustices associated with the food production industry.
It can’t stop there, though. Food packaging, including what materials it’s made from and how it is disposed of at end-of-use, is equally important. Less packaging is the most sustainable and ideal choice, but opting for truly eco-friendly packaging is second best. As your company develops a green procurement policy for selecting the most sustainable foods and food packaging, it’s fair to say that you’re taking a bite out of innovation and possibility. The sustainable decisions your business makes today helps create the greener world of tomorrow.
About the Author
Natalie Sheffey Soto
GBB Green Ambassador
Natalie Sheffey Soto is a content writer for the Green Business Bureau. Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains, she developed a love for the natural environment and has committed herself to a career working to protect it. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Global Sustainability with a concentration in Sustainable Business at the University of South Florida. Along with her outdoor enthusiasm, Natalie loves to play sports and foster animals for local rescues.