Reuse, Recycle and Change -- All Coming to the Food Industry

It’s no secret that consumers can make an impact on businesses. We’ve seen it time and time again over the past year. More recently, consumers concerned about climate change and food waste have taken over the air waves. Research shows a growing number of consumers are asking for changes from big companies and brands in exchange for their money.

It’s beginning to affect change in the food industry in a wide variety of ways. Everything from farming techniques and pesticides to packaging and drinking straws are changing. And it’s likely only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

This week, concern for farmers and all residents in the Midwest is top of mind as flood waters ravage the area. As a result of this flooding and the crop damage, we are sure to see changes in pricing for animal feed, produce and meat. It will take years to fix the infrastructure damage in affected communities. Farmers may never recover.

Here in the Northwest, we believe strongly in recycling and feel good when we fill up the big bins for curbside pick-up. But we’ve become complacent and now the companies that buy, shred and reuse our recycling are calling foul. Some cities are just putting recycling in the landfill which is concerning those who think they’re doing the right thing. It’s yet another subject upsetting the apple cart.

Single-Use Bags and Straws the Beginning

The time for change is upon us, or beyond us. Most grocery stores will phase out single-use plastic bags by 2025. Many cities have already banned the bags along with plastic straws. But these are just symbols of a bigger problem that will likely see major changes in the industry over the next five or ten years. Food companies need to engage now in the research and development required to produce packaging that will save our planet.

Sustainable Farming Operations

Companies, especially those involved in large farming operations, are also beginning to see the need to become partners with farmers to support more sustainable practices. General Mills is just one company that jumped on the bandwagon in a different way through their regenerative agriculture efforts. They’re working with farmers to help make sure the land is preserved in ways that will allow for sustainable growth for years to come. Like most other companies, they are also working in repackaging their products to be more recyclable.

Reducing Food Waste Provides Solutions

On the food waste side of the equation, companies like Kroger have launched company-wide initiatives to reduce waste and hunger through in-store programs as part of their Zero Hunger/Zero Waste program. Organizations like the James Beard Foundation are supporting reductions in food waste with their Waste Not program.

Plastic-based Packaging Changes

But what about plastic packaging that’s become so prevalent, and convenient? Banning the bags we carry may be the first step but plastic use abounds in the food industry. Companies around the world are working to develop new cost-efficient packaging that is still convenient for the customer. Bamboo and other quickly biodegradable and regenerative products are at the forefront of many initiatives.

One culprit getting considerable attention is the single-use coffee cup. It’s one of the many single-use products making its way into recycle bins when it shouldn’t.

Companies like Smart Planet Technologies reportedly have the solution but it may not be cost-effective enough for the big companies like Starbucks who would need to invest in technology to make the change from their current cups. In the meantime, companies are encouraging regular customers to bring their own cups to save the environment.

New packaging to replace Styrofoam used by meat and produce departments is under development but, again, presents problems with cost and also durability. Consumer outrage at waste will likely have to increase considerably for replacement packaging to move beyond specialty retailers like Trader Joe’s who are replacing their Styrofoam.

Convenience vs the Planet -- the Tug of War of the Ages

The challenge will be weighing the convenience of purchases like meal kits against the packaging involved with that convenience. The average meal kit includes a range of insulation, plastic bags and plastic-coated boxes as well as jars for each ingredient.

Packaging changes may not be as far away as we think when larger chains like McDonald’s report 100% of its guest packaging will come from renewable, recycled sources by 2025 and 100% of stores will offer recycling options in their stores.

There are a few subscription-based reusable packaging products being marketed in major U.S. cities but it will take some time for these to become mainstream. Or, will it? Does it just take a major outcry from consumers to force companies to make change? Those who are wise have already begun the research to make changes consumers require before they ask for it.

It sure seems as though the tipping point has been reached in this area. Research shows customers want packaging materials that reflect a brand's environmental commitment whether that comes from sustainability, reuse, recycling or innovative materials.

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