Freakonomics Looks at Plastic Packaging of Food, Eats It Up


Image via Apartment Therapy

It's a tough job, trying to turn conventional wisdom on its head every day for the New York Times, but that doesn't stop the Freakonomics team from trying, from spreading lousy advice and from not seeing the forest for the trees. Take the packaging of fruits and vegetables: James McWilliams writes that packaging makes food last longer and reduces food waste significantly, and that plastic is our friend. He also suggests that decaying food releases methane, whereas plastic in a landfill (or floating in the Pacific gyre) does not. He quotes the Independent, suggesting that discarding food produces three times the carbon dioxide as discarding food packaging.


hmmm, not much plastic here at the Wychwood Barns Farmers Market; photo via Joe Mihevc

The crux of the matter, as McWilliams acknowledges, is that the problem is systemic, part of our food system.

True, if we all produced our own food, sourced our diet locally, or tolerated bruised and rotting produce, prolonging shelf life wouldn't matter much. But the reality is decidedly otherwise. The vast majority of food moves globally, sits in grocery stores for extended periods, and spends days, weeks, or even years in our pantries. Thus, if you accept the fact that packaging is an unavoidable reality of our globalized food system, you must also be prepared to draw a few basic distinctions. (If you don't accept that fact, well, there's probably no point in reading further.)

I don't accept that fact, and don't see why anyone should. McWilliams even suggests the solution:

If you're truly eager to take on the waste inherent in our food systems, you'd be better off reforming your own habits at home--say, by buying more strategically, minimizing waste, and eating less--before taking on the institutional packaging practices of disembodied food distributers.

Within the body of an article defending plastic packaging, McWilliams suggests perfectly reasonable and effective alternatives. Why not promote that idea, instead of touting plastic? Sorry, no Freakonomics story there.

Tags: Plastics | Waste

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