Here's a counter-intuitive way in which packaging can help the environment: put more food in single-portion packs. Increase the proportion of packaging to product in the food we buy, and with it increase the amount of packaging waste we generate.
We tend to become conscious of packaging when it is empty. As a result we think less about its whole, functional lifespan and more about the rubbish left behind. This is to overlook its role as the component of a product that prevents damage and loss during transportation, and prolongs the life of the contents. Packaging's primary purpose is to reduce product waste, and in doing so to avoid over-production. Since in most cases a great deal more energy is expended on manufacturing a product than its packaging, packaging is overall a net conserver of energy, water and other resources.
So the argument goes that if insufficient packaging results in greater waste, perhaps we sometimes need more packaging. Single-serving packs, which undeniably use more material per gram of product, prevent us from discarding food or drink after opening a bottle or bag that contains more than we need at that moment. Perhaps it makes sense to buy pieces of fruit in single-serving packs instead of bringing home a bag of apples and letting the bacteria get to them before we do.
This exercise in practical kitchen ethics touches on a profoundly important global problem. A third of the food produced on our planet is lost or wasted - amounting to 1.3bn tonnes every year. In regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, where a great deal less packaging is used, the majority of waste occurs between harvesting, processing and distribution – far more than in Europe at the same stages of the supply chain. The inference is that packaging can play a role in easing pressure on food supply in the developing world. Globally, it can help feed us more resource-efficiently and support the overall sustainability of food production.
In the west, meanwhile, innovation has lightened packaging's environmental footprint while increasing its effectiveness at cutting waste. Modified atmosphere technologies now widely used extend the shelf life of fresh produce. Breakthroughs in smart packaging raise the possibility of a future in which films, like a banana skin, change colour to inform us the food inside is turning. More packaging, less waste.
Well, not quite. If in the poorer parts of the world waste is to a large degree a problem of insufficient packaging before it reaches the consumer, in the affluent regions over-consumption is the greatest driver of environmental damage. The British consumer wastes much, much more food than the average Nigerian who, despite the scarcity of packaged portions of salad leaves, discards very little.
In the 20th century packaging emerged as the great facilitator and siren of consumerism. It is a devilishly effective advertising medium which makes products look desirable, feel good in our hands, and even appear virtuous – after all, the packaging is substantively greener than ever before. Evidently, even a small carton that informs us the product inside will give you cancer can be so potent a branding tool that the tobacco industry is lobbying hard to convince us that it isn't the packaging that kills you, just the cigarettes inside. Packaging tempts us to buy more than we can eat, delivers us fresh food from New Zealand – with little wastage – and makes it convenient to consume in contexts where we used to happily go without.
So a single-portion pack may indeed often be the greener consumer choice – but only if we are really sure we need that stuff inside.