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Do frozen foods heat up the planet?

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Lean Cuisine frozen food in pouch packagingPeople are constantly on the go and searching for something convenient and affordable. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the frozen food industry has grown to $22 billion since its emergence back in the 1930s. With the average American consuming 72 frozen meals per year, the amount of packaging waste generated contributes greatly to the millions of tons of municipal sold waste (MSW) each year. Given this, I ask: Can sustainable packaging exist in the frozen food industry?

Like any business, profit and revenue are the goals. The less the cost in manufacturing a package, ultimately the bigger the profit. Some frozen food manufacturers have taken notice. Instead of opting for packing food in plastic then in cardboard, many foods now are simply packaged in thin, lightweight plastic bags. This is beneficial for everyone. These plastic bags not only reduce overall MSW, but they also preserve freshness, ensuring that the food you’re consuming is at its best quality.

However, there are other ways frozen food manufacturers can contribute and participate in sustainable packaging. The first includes slowly including biodegradable supplies in the packaging itself. Let’s look at the generic TV dinner. Usually it consists of an entrée packaged in plastic with two sides wrapped in more plastic. This tray is then placed into the cardboard box to look appealing to consumers. Although it may be a bit far-fetched to convince manufacturers to make an entire TV dinner package biodegradable, basic steps can be taken to reduce MSW, one of which is making some portion of the actual food tray eco-friendly. This alone can greatly reduce what ends up in landfills for decades on end.

Another solution for frozen food manufacturers is to take the TerraCycle approach and recycle packaging. Frozen food manufacturers must explore the option to implement their own collection programs among their consumers that in turn can reduce the cost of producing new packaging as well as reduce the overall rate of waste generated.

Municipal recycling will always lag behind plastic advancements and this is especially true in regards to the very lightweight plastic formats used in many frozen products. Now it should be noted that the use of these types of plastic is very commendable, after all the first “R” is Reduce, then Reuse and Recycle. The lightweight plastics the industry is moving towards are less plastic, less packaging weight, which creates drastic carbon savings during shipping.

However, these packaging types also are not commonly recycled anywhere in the US. Since “reuse” is not a viable option, it appears that frozen food manufactures who truly want to be sustainable will have to explore recycling options, take-back programs or other end of life solutions for their packaging.

Do you think the frozen food industry’s use of lightweight plastics is enough? Or must they do more to increase their sustainability, how do they compare with other pre-packaged food industries? I look forward to your thoughts.

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