Food packaging and climate change

A recent Henley Centre survey suggested that 86% of people were eager to buy goods with less packaging, up 20% in the last two years. Nothing arouses as much spontaneous anger among British householders as the ‘over-packaging’ of foods. Recent newspaper headlines conveyed righteous indignation about the policies of UK retailers, in particular the failure to make all packaging recyclable. The newspapers completely missed the point. Three issues need to be emphasised:

  • Food packaging is a vanishingly small fraction of UK waste. Waste food is far more important.
  • Good packaging is vital: it helps protect food from damage and helps lengthen its shelf life.
  • Recyclable food packaging may actually be bad for climate change.

Making these points too loudly can get you lynched in some middle-class areas of Britain. Nevertheless, it needs to be said repeatedly that packaging, particularly of food, is not the environmental disaster it is made out to be.


The Local Government Association (LGA) represents the councils that are responsible for disposing of Britain’s waste. Landfill taxes are rising and councils are also facing the threat of fines for not increasing the percentage of waste that is recycled.

The LGA commissioned a survey to look at the total amount of food packaging and the percentage that is recyclable. The survey was part of its campaign to reduce the amount of waste its councils handle, and to increase the recyclable percentage of what remains.

It survey showed that:

  • About 5% of the weight of a basket of supermarket goods is packaging.
  • About 60% of this packaging was ‘recyclable’, largely because it is made from paper, card, glass or steel. Plastic bottles are also recyclable.

The LGA used the results of this survey to criticise food retailers and to demand that the supermarkets reduced their packaging of food. This request is misplaced – it should have focused more on getting households not to waste food, and to carry out good quality composting at home for any food that has to be thrown away.

The background: UK waste volumes The total waste from all sources in the UK is about 335m tonnes, of which households dispose of about 30m tonnes. Therefore, only about 10% of the UK’s waste comes from households. The most important source of waste is from building sites, which produce almost four times as much rubbish as UK homes. Similarly, a large coal-fired power station, such as Didcot, will produce more waste in the form of ash than all the households in the surrounding county of Oxfordshire. Domestic waste is highly visible but a relatively unimportant source of rubbish.

Packaging of all types represents about 5m tonnes of household waste. I calculate that the amount arising from food packaging is probably no more than about 1m tonnes, or about a third of 1% of the UK total. The weight of food packaging going into waste disposal is under 20kg per person per year. By contrast, food waste is almost certainly in excess of 6m tonnes or six times as much. For each person in the UK, 100kg of food waste is put into domestic rubbish containers each year.

The vast majority of food waste is then taken to landfill sites, although local authority food composting volumes are rising. Far more waste food than food packaging goes into landfill. And, as the next paragraphs say, food waste is far more of a climate problem than a few kilos of polythene film.

Waste disposal and climate change Everything thrown away has used some energy in its manufacture. Minimising waste is a good way of minimising the use of energy and natural resources. No one argues for increasing the amount of waste going into the rubbish containers of UK households.

But the issues are very much more complex than suggested by the LGA report. Food going into landfill will gradually rot and in the absence of air will produce methane. Methane is a far worse global warming gas than CO2. Landfill sites are one of the worst sources of methane, although operators are getting increasingly good at capturing the gas and burning it for energy.

Anything that rots will turn into methane (eventually) in a landfill site. Plastic packaging is largely inert and will stay harmlessly in landfill for thousands of years. No one likes the idea of burying plastic waste, but this represents far less of a climate change issue than the disposal of rotting food. We also need to remember that putrescible food packaging (primarily paper and cardboard) will also rot to create methane if it is put in landfill. Plastic will not.

A few grams of plastic film has no measurable climate change impact, particularly when compared to waste food. Before demanding that more food packaging is recyclable, its advocates need to be sure that the vast majority of this packaging will be properly composted (in the case of paper and cardboard) or reprocessed (in the case of steel, aluminium or glass). ‘Recyclable’ packaging that will eventually rot in landfill is far worse for the climate than inert plastics. And, in addition, it may well take more energy to manufacture than a lightweight plastic.

The importance of food packaging Packaged food lasts longer. INCPEN, a packaging industry trade association, quotes a study by the Cucumber Growers’ Association which showed that ‘unwrapped cucumbers are unsaleable after 3 days; just 1.5 grams of plastic wrapping (and 0.4 grams of paper label) keeps them fresh for 14 days and untouched by dirty hands’.

Packaged food is less likely to be damaged in transit from farm to shop and from there to the home. INCPEN says that ‘a study that compared apples sold loose with four in a shrink-wrapped tray showed that there was 27% more waste (bruised apple and used packaging) from orchard to home from those sold loose’.

Food that doesn’t last, or is damaged by the time it arrives home, is much more likely to be thrown into the rubbish bin and eventually find its way into landfill where it will eventually degrade into methane.

Let’s estimate what the impact of this waste food is on climate change and then compare it with the impact of excess packaging. In my book How to Live a Low-Carbon Life I estimate that the food waste thrown by a typical individual into landfill probably creates over 200kg of greenhouse gases, or almost 2% of the individual’s annual total. This is far more significant than the 20kg of food packaging typically thrown away each year.

What about the climate impact of making the packaging in the first place, compared to the food we eat? Once again, this debate is an unequal contest. Some foodstuffs, particularly meat and dairy, create more than ten times as much CO2 in their manufacture as they weigh. A kilo of beef may create 50 kilos during its production process, mostly because of the methane belched out by the animal as part of its digestive process. The total carbon emissions in the food packaging industry are probably little more than 10% of the food industry total.

The LGA’s focus on food packaging is bizarre and unhelpful. It is far more important to get people to buy the food they need, and then to use it, than it is to remove a couple of kilos a year of packaging waste. This is where local government should focus its attention. One suspects that trying to get people to buy, cook and eat food carefully is a politically risky activity. It is far easier to take a few cheap shots at supermarkets.