The True Cost of Cheap Foam Packaging

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Time Magazine recently ran a cover story exhorting the real costs of cheap food and how the industrialization of our food chain ends up being a very expensive proposition. The article underscored how industrialization adversely affects our nutrition, our environment and our overall lifestyle. Cheap in this case appears to be a very costly side affect of our industrialized food chain.

Unfortunately what was left out of the article was the associated costs of the cheap packaging the cheap food is packaged in.

Take a look in your neighborhood supermarket and you will see hundreds of fresh fruits, vegetables, prepared foods, and meats all packaged on the ubiquitous foam tray. Taken for granted by the consumer, cheap polystyrene foam trays have been the grocers' packaging of choice solely for one reason, it is cheap. Cheap food in cheap packaging.

But what is the true cost of cheap foam packaging? The number of supermarket foam trays used annually is staggering. The totals are well into the billions... that right billions with a "B" that end up as thousands of tons of polystyrene garbage overcrowding landfills coast to coast. These trays were designed to help sell a product with a shelf life of hours or days on a tray built to last 'forever'. Doesn't make much sense, does it?

Look in your own refrigerator. From ground beef to mushrooms to chicken to fruit, many of these commodities are packaged on foam trays. And the vast majority of these trays get dumped into our community landfills. There the thousands of tons of polystyrene waste sits indefinitely, adding to an already over saturated waste management crisis from coast to coast.

There is an alternative. Companies like mine are making trays from natural fibers that come from annually renewable resources like sugarcane. Grown and harvested seasonally, the residue from the sugar refining process can be pulped and processed into a wide variety of trays, trays that meet the most demanding environmentally friendly standards. Because the fibers breakdown when exposed to heat, moisture and pressure, they generally degrade in a matter of months minimizing the negative waste impact associated with most fresh food packaging. What a simple solution!

If this "green" alternative packaging is available, why don't you see it in most of your neighborhood markets?

Cost, these natural fiber trays are more expensive than the traditional foam trays and the high volume and low profit margin supermarket industry has been reluctant to bite the bullet and make the switch from Polystyrene foam. But there are a few exceptions like Whole Foods and Trader Joes where they have decided to be consistent in providing "natural foods" in "natural packaging." What could be a bigger disconnect than putting organic foods on a polystyrene foam trays? Packaging food that has a shelf life counted in days in packaging that sticks around indefinitely?

Now some communities are actively getting involved in the elimination of foam packaging in supermarkets. Seattle, Washington, is the first major city (with over 30 cities to follow) to enact legislation banning polystyrene foam packaging in supermarkets. The bill takes affect July 1, 2010 and it appears their proactive measures are the precursor for other communities. Not unlike the ban on plastic bags, this legislative activity is the first shot over the bow marking a change in the way fresh food is packaged. It will take legislation to level the cost-playing field, but in the end, natural packaging will be a cost effective solution to how we deliver fresh food.

Richard Feldman has been in the packaging business for over 30 years and is the head of G4 Packaging based in Los Angeles, California.