Plastic food packaging, especially single-use containers, is a growing problem for the food industry. According to the UN Environment Program, 460 million tons of plastic is generated each year worldwide. Almost half (46%) goes to landfills, 22% becomes litter, 17% is incinerated, and 15% is collected for recycling. However, less than 9% is actually recycled. 

Because plastic never breaks down entirely, micro and nano particles end up everywhere — in the air we breathe, in the soils we farm, and in the food we eat, according to UN experts.

“We will not recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis: we need a systemic transformation to achieve the transition to a circular economy,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director.

Jack Cooper, founder and former director of the Animal Digestible Food Packaging Initiative (ADFPI), noted in a presentation at the 73rd Pacific Seafood Technology Conference in February 2023, that plastic food packaging that ends up in a landfill, as litter, or in a waterway is a scientific, legislative and regulatory, legal and public affairs challenge for the food industry. 

Cooper has long had the goal of convincing food packaging manufacturers and food companies that they need to develop fully digestible commercial food packaging that, once discarded, can be fed to animals as a way of cutting down on plastic pollution.

According to Angela Anandappa, executive director of ADFPI, two sciences are needed to make that a reality. First, fully digestible products need to be developed — few exist now on a limited scale — and a composting infrastructure to handle such products needs to be built. 

“Animal digestible food packaging is either primary, secondary or tertiary packaging that is made from materials that can be fully digestible by animals, bacteria, yeasts and fungi,” Anandappa said. “During digestion these living organisms convert these materials into simpler materials that are readily decomposed further or used as a fuel or fertilizer for plants and other organisms.”

One such product made from mushrooms could eventually be used to replace food containers made from Styrofoam plastic. While such products show promise, currently their use is limited.

“If we look at food packaging, the alternative people are coming up with is regurgitating one plastic into another. And that’s not a solution,” Anandappa said. For instance, she said, pouch-type packaging that has the look and feel of paper actually has an interior coating of plastic and thus is neither recyclable nor compostable.

For example, compostable bags those that can be used to bag bulk lettuce at a grocery store — are a type of industrial plastic grown from corn or sugarcane, called PLA. Because they are made of organic material, their permeability makes them vulnerable to harmful organisms, which does not make them suited for long-term storage. To be used broadly, they would need to be composted in an industrial setting, according to Gianeco, a global plastic and recycling company. 

                   It's easy to be "in the know" about agriculture news from coast to coast! Sign up for a FREE month of Agri-Pulse news. Simply click here.

While PLA bags can be composted at home, consumers would need to understand how to compost, and most consumers do not have the time or capability to do so at home, Anandappa said. That leaves PLA composting to waste handlers who need controlled compost sites, but most trash in the United States is either destined for the landfill or incinerated. 

“Currently, developing [fully digestible products] is primarily done using private funds. A small amount of federal funds has been used to conduct research on new materials but getting them to be suitable for use in various applications is still mostly done by companies wishing to commercialize these products,” she said.

The infrastructure for getting packaging materials from the consumer to the farm or commercial compost, however, is lacking. “Ideally, a fully digestible packaging material needs to be matched with the correct means of disposal so it can be appropriately channeled to the right places. At this time, composting — one way to digest materials — is not available everywhere and many materials are too complex for composting,” Anandappa added. 

President Joe Biden signed an executive order in 2021 that called for federal agencies to reduce and phase out procurement of single-use plastic products to the extent practicable. The secretary of the interior in 2002 ordered the phaseout of single-use plastic products, including food and beverage containers, on department-managed lands by 2032. 

The Fish and Wildlife Service has committed to eliminating single-use plastic bottles at a quarter of its visitor centers, refuges, and fish hatcheries by the end of this year, and the National Park Service will phase out single-use plastic by 2032.

Several states have passed laws to reduce plastic packaging, including California, Oregon and Washington. Minnesota is considering a state law. California’s law mandates that by 2032, all packaging must be recyclable or compostable, single-use packaging must be reduced by 65%, and total plastic packaging by 25%. It also shifts the burden from consumers to the industry by raising $5 billion from the industry by 2032.  

Washington state’s more aggressive bill sets a 2025 goal in which all packaging is 100% recyclable or compostable and must contain at least 20% post-consumer recycled material. 

Oregon’s recycling law, which goes into effect July 1, 2025, puts the onus on manufacturers. Environment Oregon explains that manufacturers will be responsible for the waste their products become and bear some cost of the waste management system. "The fees that producers pay into the system are graduated based on how environmentally friendly their products are, creating an incentive for producers to design their products to be less wasteful,” it says.

On a global scale, plastic food packaging waste has taken on a note of urgency, especially in the produce industry due to regulatory moves in Canada and the European Union. Produce growers and exporters are concerned that restrictions on plastic packaging with reduction targets of 5% by 2030 and 15% by 2040 will have tremendous consequences on food safety and waste.

The EU proposed in March to cut packaging waste and ban single-use plastics. If enacted, it could take effect in early 2026. Similar restrictions are under consideration in Canada. Two-thirds of packaging waste in Europe comes from food and beverages, and the amount of packaging waste, expected to increase 25% by 2030, outpaces recycling capacity.

In addition to reduction targets, the law would mandate that all packaging be recyclable by 2030, set recycled content minimums for different plastic packaging products, and expand an existing single-use packaging ban to cover plastic packaging for many fruit and vegetable products.

The fifth session (INC-5) of the UN Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee will meet in Busan, Korea, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 4 to develop an international binding instrument on plastic pollution. 

In a statement at INC-4 in April, the United States said it supports “binding obligations to reduce the demand for primary plastic polymers, including by establishing public procurement policies to reduce plastic waste, and to improve product design and performance measures, which would drive down the need for production of virgin plastic." It called for stronger waste management approaches, including greater producer responsibility and banning open dumping and burning.

For more news, go to