Why single-use packaging will preserve Europe’s food waste problem

With the European Union currently drafting rules designed to cut Europe’s food and other waste, the packaging industry recently promoted itself as playing a key part in the answer. The European Environmental Bureau’s Piotr Barczak argues that single-use packaging is not the way to avoid Europe producing waste

Why single-use packaging will preserve Europe’s food waste problemIt seems that every day a fresh, horrifying statistic emerges on the sheer volume of food being thrown away throughout Europe – rubbing salt into the wounds of the 840 million people across the globe struggling to stave off hunger.

Last week, the packaging industry claimed that packaging – including wrapping thrown away after being used only once – is essential to improving how the world uses resources such as food, as it protects the commodity wrapped within it. Astonishingly, they also claim that packaging minimises product waste, despite plastic packaging itself accounting for 80 per cent of global marine litter, and plastic looking set to outweigh the amount of fish in the sea by 2050.

To say that action must be taken to limit the amount of food being wasted across Europe is an understatement. Yet by championing packaging as a solution to wasting food and other resources, the European packaging industry could exacerbate a problem it is naively claiming to solve.

Less food was wasted before single-use packaging (packaging designed to be immediately thrown away after use) began to proliferate in shops and supermarkets, yet today, significant amounts of unopened edibles are being sent to landfill despite their extensive wrapping. This alone debunks the industry’s claim that the best way of preventing waste is through not placing restrictions on what food and other items are packaged in.

Cutting down on waste by producing more packaging is totally contradictory. Rather than stopping good food rotting in landfills or being incinerated, it encourages societal overconsumption by wrapping food up in often excessive layers of packaging designed to highlight branding rather than preserve contents – all of which still must be thrown away.

It also helps to engrain a ‘single-use’ culture in consumers’ minds, encouraging people to thoughtlessly throw away vast amounts of packaging rather than considering more sustainable alternatives, such as using reusable containers or buying products in bulk.

And alternatives to the packaging craze are gaining more and more momentum. Shops specialising in package-free products are on the rise across Europe, offering customers cheaper prices as packaging costs are deducted, and cutting down on waste by allowing customers to buy the exact amount of what they need.

It is crucial that the European Union introduces regulations promoting these and other more resource-efficient options, and not bend to the whims of the packaging industry, in upcoming legislation designed to tackle Europe’s waste problem (known as the Circular Economy Package). This would give consumers a genuine alternative to single-use packaging, empowering them to use reusable and sustainable solutions.

New laws must champion reusing packaging over recycling it, in line with the waste management hierarchy (a legally binding system the European Union uses to prevent waste), as it is far more sustainable to use an item multiple times than to develop a complex recycling system to rescue the materials within it. Economic incentives that make less durable, reusable and recyclable products more expensive for both businesses and consumers can also play an important role in pushing consumers towards reusable alternatives.

MEP Simona Bonafè’s report on how Europe can reduce waste rightly attempts to help people break societal patterns of throwing away mountains of single-use items – something that must be maintained when it is voted on in the European Parliament’s Environment Committee in November.

Any packaging designed solely to be landfilled or incinerated should also be prohibited, with the businesses producing this waste footing the bill for disposable of anything that is not reused or recycled.

Yet making these changes to how resources are packaged will only be effective if the system they are transported within is also made more sustainable. Locally-sourced products have proven popular with consumers, and community ‘farm-to-fork’ schemes can cut out excessive packaging, provide nutritious food for the public and support local jobs and economies.

Only a strong Circular Economy Package limiting the use of unnecessary and unrecyclable packaging will help to solve the litter crisis in the world’s oceans, and packaging is only one small part of the answer to rebooting a food system so obviously broken.

Without crucial legislative action, the mountain of negative statistics on wasted food – and the amount of plastic in our oceans – will only continue to grow.

Piotr Barczak is the Waste Policy Officer at the European Environmental Bureau, Europe’s largest federation of environmental NGOs. He tweets from @PBarczak.

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