Today’s food industry is so developed that in many ways we are disconnected from what we eat. The convenience and ease of delivery, takeaway, and ready-to-eat options is very tempting. We don’t need to cook and we can have food on the table in a matter of minutes.
Yes, it’s convenient. But what price do we pay for this? Preparing and cooking food, an essential human skill, has become a foreign notion to many of us. There are fallouts from convenience culture, not least of which is the hefty environmental cost.
A rather uncomfortable truth is that the more our culture of convenience permeates our food choices, the more inconvenient these choices become in the long run.
What Is Convenience Culture?
The 21st century has seen the notion of convenience emerge as a surprisingly powerful force in both our individual lives and wider society.
Convenience can be described as an efficient, fast, and easy way of completing a given action. Be it watching a movie – we can now instantly stream on Netflix instead of having to rent a DVD from Blockbuster. Or cooking dinner – we could start from scratch with whole, raw, unprocessed ingredients, or we could swiftly compile a meal from composite packaged parts:
A microwaveable package of rice for four persons +
A package of stir fry sauce +
A plastic-wrapped package of pre-chopped mixed vegetables +
A package of pre-cut chicken breast strips
= A complete family meal, a lot of plastic waste, and a recipe for environmental disaster.
Convenience culture is rife in food. It’s so ubiquitous that we barely notice it anymore. From drive-through fast food joints, to individually wrapped bliss balls, to takeaway salad bowls, to snack pots of fruit: many of our options come stamped with the convenience seal of approval.
The Rise of Convenience Foods
Our love affair with convenient food began to take hold in the 1950s. Ham in a can, tinned baked beans, quick-cook oats, and the very first TV dinners. These, and items such as pre-packaged cake mix, were cleverly marketed to the ‘modern’ housewife with taglines such as, “I’m late but dinner won’t be!”.
Powdered eggs, canned soups, and instant potatoes all made their way from the domain of WWII mess tents to the family home.
Newfangled futuristic inventions such as the microwave oven came on the scene. At that time the savvy housewife was one who could nuke up a “nutritious and delicious” meal of spam and tinned peas for her family.
A rising confluence between leisure time, “keeping up with the Joneses’”, and convenience foods collided with the end of war-time austerity measures.
Convenience foods were only going in one direction: up. Unfortunately, so was their use of packaging.
The Impact of Convenience Foods
As Lynn White writes in her seminal essay on the historical roots of our ecological crisis, people have always been a dynamic element within their own environments. Historically, we have changed and crafted our habitats and sources of food towards our mass needs.
As these needs were reimagined in the 20th century as driven by convenience, we have changed our environment for the worse.
Plastic, a well-known scourge of the earth, is often an essential part of convenience food packaging. Do we really need so much fruit and vegetable packaging?
Throwaway culture, generated by the endless array of quick food choices on offer, means that most packaging is single-use. In fact, more than half of all the goods in Europe are wrapped in plastic. The UK alone produces around 170 million tonnes of rubbish each year, and much of this is food packaging.
There is now so much rubbish that landfills alone can’t cope. Some of the plastic packaging we use is poisonous and much of it never degrades. Some types of plastics take up to 500 years to break down. And PET, a common recyclable packaging choice, doesn’t degrade ever.
We are filling our habitats with our own junk.
How Do We Justify This?
In short, we can’t.
Yet the allure of easy options remains strong for many of us. It’s all too easy to put blinkers on when it comes to maintaining the level of convenience we’ve all become so accustomed to.
As strange as it might sound, when it comes to food, the inconvenient options are where we can redeem ourselves somewhat. Starting to cook with whole, raw, bulk-bought ingredients may seem daunting and too time consuming at first. But it’s through inconveniencing ourselves in the short term that we will see long-term benefits. As Dave Hall writes in The Guardian, “manufacturers got us into this mess, but it’s up to us to dig ourselves out”.
If ditching packaging seems too hard, remember that we vote with our wallets. Choosing to align ourselves with companies and efforts that have the least possible environmental impact is how we can start to make a change.
Vote with Your Wallet
Some companies have retained the convenience factor but have ditched traditional packaging for something environmentally friendly. Snact, makers of all-natural fruit jerky and banana bars, use a biodegradable and compostable packaging.
Other companies have come up with not just innovative but scalable ideas, such as Tetra Pak’s Tetra Rex Bio-based. This fully renewable packaging is derived entirely from plants and is the world’s first to be available globally. The clever carton design scooped up an award at the Pro2Pac Excellence Awards, here in the UK.
Vegware, with operational bases in the UK, USA, Australia, and Hong Kong, also produce plant-based compostable packaging solutions. And they distribute their products to many parts of the world.
Ultimately, consumer demand drives production efforts. We can rest assured that if companies start to see a major consumer trend toward wholly renewable packaging, they will strive to keep up with the market. Voting with our wallets is one way in which we can keep the convenience factor, without trashing our planet.
The true cost of convenience culture is the environment, and much damage has already been done. Moving forward, our mindsets and inclinations toward convenience as a whole need to be reevaluated. At the end of the day, we’re inconveniencing ourselves more by not doing so.