Panelists Discuss Importance of Sustainability in Food Packaging and Plastics
The Kellogg School of Management, with outreach support from the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN), hosted a virtual panel discussion on the sustainable use of plastics in food retail on April 20.
The seminar, titled “Packaged with Care: Plastics in the world of food retail,” covered how organizations are addressing the plastics crisis through partnerships and policies. Facilitated by Kellogg professor Megan Kashner, topics included the importance of working together through partnerships to ensure that this work is done properly.
“Plastics are here,” said Ian Olson, senior director of global sustainability at McDonald’s Corporation and adjunct associate professor with Northwestern’s Master of Science in Energy and Sustainability (MSES) program. “What we've got to try to do is figure out where is the highest and best use for those plastics, and then ensure we have a system that can capture those plastics and continue to use them where they're needed most. And then [determine] where we can use different types of materials where plastics are being used."
Olson went on to say that McDonald’s has the added necessity of food safety. The packaging therefore has the added need of being safe as well as sustainable. He also said that it’s important to partner with organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), to make sure to make the right moves in terms of recycling and waste management.
Panelist Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at WWF, also discussed the importance of partnerships to build trust. She explained that organizations such as McDonalds and WWF have built a strong partnership ambition, so it’s important to get everyone on the same page with the correct information to make an informed decision.
The panelists discussed the nature of standardization of materials use and what that could mean in terms of policy. Olson explained that standardization of products could dampen the line of activity in production in terms of volatility and value. Additionally, this standardization could lead to policy changes at a national level.
“What has grown from the idea of standardization is that now you've got a number of companies that are voluntarily doing [the work], but honestly as big as they are, are not enough to change, for example, the US system,” said Simon.
Simon went on to add that there need to be mandatory mechanisms within the United States that demand that everyone adding to municipal solid waste does so in the same way. This includes design guidelines, waste management, and helping companies see the value in using sustainable materials.
Both panelists were also hopeful that the new Biden administration would help make policy changes so that an infrastructure for sustainability could be maintained. Through these mechanisms, policies can be uniform across municipalities and local governments so that reuse and recycling is easier to understand for consumers.
The panelists ended with the importance of small actions and calling on governments and companies to engage in these changes as well. People want to recycle and help reduce plastics, but they often don’t know where to start.
“When we think about what the future needs to hold for consumers, we need it to be easy,” said Simon. “We need it to be simple [and] we need businesses and government to lead the charge on this, but we need everybody to sort of take these small actions today as best they can.”