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23 January 2017

Can Seafood be Packaged Sustainably?

Written by Meg Morris, Posted in Meg Morris, Fish Net Blog, Blog Authors

Please tell us about how and when you got into the business of recycling.
 My father was in marine salvage and my mother had to make everything work double time in order to feed and clothe my 6 other brothers and sisters, so I grew up with the notion of waste not, want not; make do or do without. I fell into my formal career in recycling and solid waste management in 1989 when I was the only elected female on Town Council and the other Councilmen thought they’d saddle me with management of the local dump (truly a dump; not a landfill of any sort!).  I had a degree in Physical Geography, so I accepted the challenge! Shortly thereafter I started the town recycling program and then spread it to 12 other towns, eventually becoming the Executive Director of a solid waste authority in New York.

What excites you most about your work?
I get excited when I have the opportunity to share my accumulated knowledge about all aspects of managing unwanted materials with anyone who is willing to listen.  The solid waste and recycling world has changed so dramatically, thus it’s a very vibrant field with lots of opportunities to make a positive impact and if after talking with someone, they recycle just one more item, I’m happy!  

Please tell us about how you work with commercial fishermen
My company, Covanta, is in a unique partnership with NOAA, the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and Schnitzer Steel, called the Fishing for Energy™ Program.  It was started in 2008 based on a project called Nets to Energy which is still operating in Hawaii at our HPower facility.  The program offers grants to commercial fishing ports to help the fisher folks dispose of unwanted, unusable gear at no cost.  We, Covanta, provide a 30-40 yard roll-off box at the port for the fisher folks to fill with nets, pots, ropes, and other derelict gear and then we pay a hauler to transport it to Schnitzer Steel.  At Schnitzer, the material is sheared, the metal removed for recycling and the residual material is then shipped to a nearby Covanta Energy-from-Waste facility where it becomes part of the fuel source for producing energy.  Through the port management team, we host meetings with the commercial fisher folks as requested in order to answer questions and encourage their participation.

Can Seafood be Packaged Sustainably?

Sustainability. Circular Economy. Staying in Business.  It really doesn’t matter what you call it as long as it’s good for your business; good for people and good for the planet.  

Businesses large and small are now taking a deeper look at how they’re currently operating in order to assess their environmental and economic impact and determine whether there’s a better way.  Across the board, whether in food production, clothing, housing, automotive, energy -- you name the area of business -- CEOs and business organization managers are looking at what they need to do to sustain their business as well as at their role in helping to make the world a better place to live and to work. 

The Association of International Seafood Professionals (AISP) is one of those organizations.  The AISP prides itself on having a “diverse team of forward-thinking seafood industry veterans, food safety experts, technology innovators, and other key stakeholders, all interested in sustaining the role of seafood as a nutritious food source for people around the world.”  As with most industries today, the AISP is interested in all aspects of sustainability, and has chosen to take a closer look at the packaging used for seafood.  For instance, what materials are being used to keep the seafood fresh and is there is an opportunity to recycle that packaging in an environmentally safe, efficient and cost-effective manner.

As with any food product, food safety is paramount and dictates certain packaging; and in the case of seafood, polystyrene seems to be just one of several preferred materials and there are most likely some good reasons for its use. But is using it sustainable?

Next comes minimizing food waste.  Packaging certainly plays a role in how much seafood is wasted.  A report from the UN indicates that a third of food never even makes it to the plate due to spoilage either at the retail level or the home kitchen. Could different packaging make a difference? 

Last, but certainly not least, is the issue of whether the seafood packaging, whatever it may be, can be or is easily recycled and at what point in the chain, i.e. on the water, at the processors, the packagers, the retail store or the home?  And if it isn’t recycled, how likely is this same material to end up in our waterways across the globe?

This isn’t a small task to gather the information; nor to figure out a reasonable, economically and environmentally viable solution. Many questions will be asked, including the type of packaging used, why it’s used, and how it’s managed once it’s removed from the seafood.  For instance, while the vast majority of plastics are recyclable, in this case, would the plastic packaging need to be rinsed before recycling or does not rinsing it render it unrecyclable?  Is there another type of packaging that is more easily and commonly recycled? Are there certain volumes of one type of packaging that make it economical to recycle and thus more likely to achieve the volumes needed to succeed?  Could it be turned into energy, producing electricity for nearby ports or processing plants?  Does the end customer have access to a local facility that processes the packaging? And even if they do, what will compel them to recycle the packaging? Or will it head to a landfill where the risk is greater that the packaging becomes airborne and thus ends up as litter either on land or in the seas? 

The AISP is determined to bring together stakeholders and field experts to help parse out an equitable, sustainable solution. Stay tuned.

About the Author

Meg Morris

Meg Morris

Meg Morris has been in the recycling and solid waste world for nearly 30 years, in the public, private and non-profit arenas, being currently employed by Covanta, a world leader in energy-from-waste.  She is a strong advocate for integrated waste systems based on the preferred hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle, recover energy and only then proper disposal of what can’t be managed by the first four R’s. She was recently honored by her peers with the National Recycling Coalition’s Lifetime Achievement in Recycling Award.

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