Plastic packaging not preventing food waste, says FoE

Plastic packaging not preventing food waste, says FoEThe main argument in favour of plastic packaging on food is the hygiene factor, keeping products fresh for longer - and thus preventing food waste. But a new report from Friends of the Earth Europe and Zero Waste Europe, published 10 April on behalf of the plastic pollution alliance Rethink Plastic, argues that this is not the case.

Titled ‘Unwrapped: How throwaway plastic is failing to solve Europe’s food waste problem’, the report reveals the extent of the food waste problem in Europe, with the most recent figures from 2012 showing that 88 million tonnes of food waste was generated by the EU-28 at a cost of €143 billion.

Furthermore, food waste per person has doubled between 2004 and 2014, while the amount of plastic packaging used has also risen by 40 to 50 per cent, with most of this used only once and predominantly ending up in landfill (31 per cent of plastic waste) or incineration (39 per cent).

The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimates that 10 million tonnes of food is wasted every year in the UK (including households, hospitality and foodservice, food manufacturers, retail, and wholesale), 60 per cent of which is avoidable.

According to Julian Kirby, lead plastics campaigner at Friends of the Earth UK: “What that really casts into quite serious doubt, I think, is the argument that the food packaging industry use quite often which is that we need plastic to avoid food waste.

“Too often the industry is using plastic packaging in order to market food, to encourage us to buy more than we even need.”

This is a key point arising from the report: that while there is no disputing plastic packaging may keep food fresher for longer, the packaging may also encourage or lead people to buy more food than they can consume - for instance, multipacks of fruit and vegetables rather than individual items purchased by weight - contributing to increased waste. Extending the shelf life of a product by packaging it in plastic doesn’t account for the overstocked fridge that means the product doesn’t get eaten at all.

Plastic packaging not preventing food waste, says FoE
'Wonky' veg can often be thrown out by growers and supermarkets despite being edible

Looking at the problem from a different angle, one study by food waste charity Feedback found that the practice of chopping green beans to fit into plastic packaging resulted in 30 to 40 per cent of the beans being wasted. Producers are also often subject to grading standards which determine how a product should look, contributing to the waste of perfectly edible but ‘wonky’ vegetables.

Naturally, there are many complex drivers behind food waste, including as the report states ‘the oversupply and undervaluing of food’: cheap food, easily available, often in plastic packaging which provides an element of convenience that many are loath to give up. Pre-packaged sandwiches, bagged salads and ready meals can be lifesavers during a hectic day, but lightweight, convenient packaging is often difficult to recycle, and items consumed on-the-go most often end up in residual waste bins.

Yet there is more desire than ever from the public to reduce plastic waste, driven by the Attenborough Effect and an increasing awareness of the environmental damage caused by single-use items. Meadhbh Bolger at Friends of the Earth commented: “EU-decision makers need to listen to the growing public appetite to quit plastics, help Europe lead in adopting strict rules to limit throwaway plastics, and shift to localised food systems without disposable packaging.”

The report criticises the European Commission’s use of the Life Cycle Assessment Tool - the methodology by which the environmental impact of goods and services is assessed in Europe - stating that the tool overstates the benefits of plastic packaging and ignores the wider impact of plastic waste. Zero Waste Europe’s Sustainable Products Campaigner Ariadna Rodrigo suggested that this “results in conclusions that favour complex food packs which are impossible to reuse or recycle.”

With legislation on single-use plastics expected from the European Commission ‘before the summer’, according to Vice President Frans Timmermans, this new report hopes to encourage a more ‘holistic’ approach which will review the problems of food waste and packaging together, looking across the supply chain from producers and retailers to householders and policy makers.

Recommendations for actions include: specific targets to reduce single-use plastic packaging; scaling up the use of reusable packaging; reviewing food cosmetic standards and labelling; greater investment in waste prevention systems; and looking at how market-based instruments like extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes can prompt behavioural change towards avoiding food and plastic waste.

The full report and recommendations, ‘Unwrapped: How throwaway plastic is failing to solve Europe’s food waste problem’, can be read on the Friends of the Earth Europe website.

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