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Produced in myriad sizes from paper, plastic, metal, glass, and an emerging variety of compostable materials, packaging has become a ubiquitous component of the modern food experience. It allows food to be seamlessly moved from farm to fork, protects food during transport, extends shelf-life, and divvies products into convenient serving sizes.

The trouble with packaging is that it’s so easy to overlook its harmful impacts. Until recently, food packaging was decidedly linear: its production involved extraction of natural resources followed by energy-intensive and often polluting manufacturing processes, it was put to brief use, and then disposed of in landfills or oceans. Driven by recognition of increasing resource scarcity, decreasing landfill space, and rising pollution, municipal recycling programs have been rolled out to transform many types of food packaging back into usable materials. But is this enough?

Today, systems thinkers are applying a circular approach to packaging, performing lifecycle assessments to select the right packaging for the right application, and weighing benefits of extended shelf-life and consequent food waste reduction against the potential impacts of additional packaging. Others are striving to move away from plastics, pursuing plant-based alternatives to facilitate composting. Another emerging trend is a shift back to reusable packaging once common in the beverage sector.

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