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February 25, 2021

Is single-use packaging necessary?


Jacquie Hutchings

When it comes to food, single-use packaging is always a part of the story. When we are having a quick snack on the run, buying groceries, or getting takeout for dinner, you can always be confident that the nearest garbage bin will be getting a bit more full.

This leads me to think, has it always been this way? What exactly started this wasteful habit? And is it really necessary?

If we go back to the early 1900s, single-use packaging didn’t exist. Even common drinking fountains would have a shared cup that people could fill up, take a drink, and leave behind for the next thirsty visitor. Of course, this presented opportunities for virus transmission and so the very first disposable packaging item was created: the “Health Kups” which was later renamed the “Dixie Cup.”

People did not quickly catch onto this trend. Until the late 40’s, disposable food packaging essentially was unheard of. The idea of wasting resources was absurd. If families were eating away from home, they would always bring a basket full of reusable dishes, and carry them home to be washed. Even “drive-thru” meant getting a car-tray full of reusable dishes delivered to your car where you would eat and return the dishes to your server.

It wasn’t until 1948 that McDonalds introduced the idea of disposable dish ware. Unlike the Dixie Cup, this was not about sanitation; it meant less dishwashing, less dish damage and quicker service. Unbeknownst to them at the time, this would mark the start of one of the most environmentally harmful industries in the modern world.We are now living in a world where convenience is paramount. We are convinced that disposables are the only way to achieve low cost and highly convenient foods. Just when the world was starting to realize the damaging effects of single-use items, COVID-19 knocked us back.

Since the start of the pandemic, our usage of single-use packaging items is up 250-300%. It is easy to understand why. We feel comfort in the idea of a single-use package and believe that it would be the cleanest, safest option. But is this true?

Disposable packaging introduced a level of sanitation over 100 years ago but in modern times it is no longer necessary. In fact, hundreds of scientists have signed a document stating that reusable items are safe during the pandemic. Further, Canadian Food Inspection Agency has released a statement declaring that there have been no COVID transmissions linked to food or food-packaging.

So why are we so convinced that single-use is better? We have fallen victim to the narrative that the packaging industry wants us to believe. The plastic packaging industry is currently valued at 1 trillion dollars. The whole industry revolves around single-use. Your waste is their profit. This industry has carefully crafted their environmental response to band-aid the problem. Single-use, resource depleting “biodegradable” and “compostable” packages are glorified as the “best” solution, while the problems regarding inaccessibility to proper composting facilities and inability to properly recycle these solutions are green-washed away. Needless to say, the modern packaging industry has been constructed on the basis of single-use, and has led us to believe that it is the only way that we can operate. What they haven’t told us is the power and the benefits that reusable packaging can offer.

Centralized reusable packaging systems offer a unique solution that pulls on resources once, and uses them over and over again. They allow us to enjoy the same convenience of ordering quick service food and enjoying it on the run. Reuse systems create a whole new tier of the economy that until recently has gone unexplored; the circular economy. Rather than pay people to extract new materials, manufacture products and throw them away, let’s pay people to collect those products, clean them, and deliver them back into the economy.

Single-use is not necessary. We can go back to a world where we value our resources but still maintain the same convenience of today.

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