Pack it in

The word “packaging” can trigger grimaces in conversations about trash and the environment. But packaging actually plays a critical role in protecting products and resources, and often helps reduce and prevent waste—especially when it comes to food.

Just Right

Using more packaging than a food product needs creates waste across the whole production process, from requiring more raw materials and energy to generating more trash. But underpackaging also strains the system, creating waste when food spoils or is damaged from lack of proper protection. The optimal packaging solution provides sufficient protection while minimizing its impact on the environment.


Food spoils. And a lot of organic material that gets thrown away could probably be saved through better packaging. In the US in 2011, packaging made up 13.1% of all municipal solid waste (garbage from homes, businesses, schools and hospitals) that ended up in landfills. It accounted for just 8.4% in the EU and less than 3% in the UK. Organic material, on the other hand, is estimated to make up 46% of the waste stream worldwide.

© Adam Voorhes/WWF-US, Styling By Robin Finlay
21 days

Maximum shelf life of beef sold in pre-sealed plastic packaging

1-3 days

Shelf life of beef sold in butcher paper

3 days

Period after which an unwrapped cucumber becomes unsalable

14 days

Period after which a plastic-wrapped cucumber becomes unsalable

Paper Trail

Paper and cardboard made from tree-based fiber account for the biggest share of packaging waste in the US. They’re also the most recycled packaging materials: Of the 38 million tons generated in 2012, 29 million (76%) were recycled.

Urban Wrap

Cities exist with the help of packaging: Most of the food and other goods they require are grown and produced outside of urban centers. In 2009, 3.42 billion people lived in urban areas, a number that exceeded the population living in rural areas for the first time in history.

Lesser Evil

On average, packaging makes up only 10% of a food product’s energy footprint. In contrast, the food itself accounts for about 50% of the product’s energy footprint. So protecting that food through packaging means keeping a big part of its footprint in check.

Choose the best packing

The most important thing to do when you shop is choose the package that best meets your needs in order to avoid food waste.

  1. Choose the right size: Don’t buy more perishable food than you or your family can eat before it goes bad. Choosing a smaller portion in a package is better than getting a whole head of lettuce that you won’t eat. 
  2. Think about timing: Are you going to eat all of that tonight? Maybe you won’t get to some of that food until the end of the week. Choose meat and veggies that are packed to extend their shelf life if you’re not planning to use them quickly. 
  3. Are you going to finish that? If you’re planning to make several meals with something (like deli meat) choosing a re-sealable package can help keep it fresh, so your lunch sandwich on Friday is as good as the one you make on Monday. 
  4. Consider a non-perishable alternative: We’re not saying you should never buy produce again, but if you’re not sure you’ll be able to eat those carrots before they go bad, maybe you should consider the frozen variety. 
  5. Be an ambassador of waste management: Compost your organic waste and take the time to read your local recycling guidelines and figure out what you can and cannot recycle. These programs vary widely on what materials they accept, so it’s important to check your local guidelines.

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World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

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