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Why organic food uses so much plastic

Long before the creation of Trader Joe's and a Wal-Mart organic label, the self-conscious consumer has pondered the hypocrisy: What's with organic eggs in plastic cartons?
Image: organic eggs
Egg producers saw no reason to make a costly switch from the standard foam and paper cartons to plastic until the end of the 20th century, when organics boomed and a branding culture took over the food industry.Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Big Money

Long before the creation of Trader Joe's and a Wal-Mart organic label, the self-conscious consumer has pondered the most natural of hypocrisies: What's with organic eggs in plastic cartons?

Maybe all-natural and cage-free eggs are more delicate and need that extra flap of protection? Maybe the clear packaging allows for sunlight to shine down on the eggs, causing their greenness to flourish and absorb vitamin E? As organic products expanded in the national market, the questions increased. Does prewashed organic mixed salad really need a box and a sealed bag? How much longer can a cucumber sit in the fridge if it is plastic-wrapped? And the ultimate question: Why does organic food involve so much plastic packaging? Doesn't that defeat the purpose?

Yes, it does. But here's the thing — it's all our fault. The only reason an excess of plastic exists is because it tickles us, the consumers, in all the right places. Clear plastic egg cartons have been around since the 1960s. However, producers saw no reason to make a costly switch from the standard foam and paper to a vanity product until the end of the 20th century, when organics boomed and a branding culture took over the food industry.

So let's start at the beginning. Today's organic market grew out of the ethics-inspired movement of the 1960s. Organic farmers had been pushing their product for decades, fighting to convince the nation that organics were not just a moral choice but also more wholesome and healthy. The movement jumped up a notch in 2002, when the USDA's seal of approval created a quantifiable national standard for "organics." With the USDA's ground rules to go by, large-scale farmers and supermarkets were also ready to get on nature's bandwagon.

Focus on superior product
Enter the plastic. Thanks to the USDA's seal, hippies and Luddites were no longer the major consumers of organic food. The game had changed. Organic shoppers of the mid-millennium now cared less about the sustainability and ethical concerns surrounding organics. Instead, they were concerned with the quality, healthfulness, and (unproven) nutritional benefit. Organics also entered the market as luxury (read: expensive) items, which meant consumers expected more convenience. In this environment, the biggest advantage of plastic cartons was literally clear. See-through packaging revolutionized the egg industry by eliminating the tiring task of opening the carton's lid to check the eggs for quality. The result was comforting and easy transparency, promising a superior product. The plastic carton itself is neither better nor worse for the egg.

Plastic can have its uses, though. We would not be able to operate today's market without it. Guarding against oxygen, bugs, and other spoilers, plastic enables mass consumption and actually cuts down on enormous amounts of waste from the production and transportation chain; yes, even extending the shelf life of cucumbers. The bags that seal diced and washed salads considerably extend the commercial life and freshness of the leaves. Freshness, of course, comes at a cost. Conventional plastic is energy-, waste-, and resource-intensive to produce. Even recycling plastic comes with a steep price tag.

To be fair, organic companies are not the only ones shrouding themselves in plastic. Many nonorganic brands sell overly bagged, prepared salads. And conventional eggs are often sold in polystyrene foam, a more sinful form of plastic. Yet we can't get over those clear plastic cartons. The irony is delicious: The very same moralistic movement that hatched today's organic craze has been a muse to the food industry's wasteful packaging practices.

These contrasts are coming to the forefront as the products lose the luster and charm of their early years. Having finally saturated demand in the food market, organics must compete not only with the growing number and variety of their peers but also with old-school, chemical-loving brands. To top it off, there is a more general awareness regarding waste produced throughout the entire chain, from producing to unwrapping. Some cities have gone so far as to ban uses of polystyrene foam. Consumers inside and outside the food industry are paying more attention to waste. In 2008, Wal-Mart, the company that sets the standard for our consumer nation, introduced its "Packaging Scorecard." Suddenly every industry had to rethink its branding and packaging to meet Wal-Mart's demands.

Incorporating sustainability
To differentiate themselves, organic companies are searching for ways to meet the demand for food and packaging variety while incorporating further sustainability. Recent developments in the packaging industry have made this goal more achievable. Oil-based polymers can already be substituted with sugar cane, corn, soy, and potatoes to make bioplastics. The products range in their disposal capacity from traditional land-filling to recyclable, biodegradable, and even compost-ready material. With these materials, you still get the luxury, convenience, and luster of plastic, but you lessen the environmental drawbacks.

Still, the alternative-plastic industry is just emerging from its infancy. Beyond the simple cost of manufacturing, there is the question of how the materials will fit into normal waste streams. Experts are debating whether switching to bio materials — which need oil during the production process — will have a net green effect. Plus, creating more demand for these staple foods has the potential to drive up the price of those products for people who need them to survive.

The ideal answer to our packaging hang-ups is to buy local food fresh and in bulk, so it's light on the packaging. A growing number of locavores are expressing more concern over the fuel used to get food to their table than the synthetics involved in its creation. Those engaged in this loose movement hope that it will go the route of organics, eventually becoming a mainstream paradigm.

This is not a realistic solution. Consumers expect variety and affordability above all else. The organics industry succeeded at exploiting the existing system and our profligate habits. Eating local requires the opposite — the self-discipline of individual consumers. It means giving up things like avocados and bananas for part, if not all, of the year. That's not to mention the higher prices that local goods, especially organic, can run compared with multinational brands, which is especially prevalent in this shrinking economy.

We are left with no one good answer. Yet, there is still room for hope. Shopping at co-ops and growing food in our backyards may never become a major trend. However, the desire to see less waste on our shelves is spreading, and producers are responding. By the end of this decade, clear egg cartons will likely have disappeared, a relic of an age of excess.