New study claims plastic packaging failing to prevent food waste

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A recent study commissioned by Friends of the Earth Europe and Zero Waste Europe has found that a rise in plastic food packaging has not succeeded in reducing Europe’s food waste problem, which has been estimated at €143bn annually.

In a statement released 10 April, the two organisations said the study, produced by the Institute of European Environmental Policy, found that while plastic packaging has a role to play in protecting food and extending shelf-life, many packaging practices increased wastefulness of both food and packaging.

According to the study, annual per-capita use of plastic packaging has grown simultaneously with levels of food waste since the 1950s – now at 30kg and 173kg respectively.

“Plastic packaging is often heralded as a means of avoiding food waste but it has not provided a comprehensive solution. Growth in the application of plastic packaging has increased alongside the growth in food waste, with Europe’s total demand for plastic rising to 49 million tonnes per year, of which 40% is used for packaging,” it went on to say.

Citing various studies, the report said ready-made food, which are becoming increasingly predominant, were part of the problem as they added to plastic waste while reducing nourishment.

“Even seemingly fresh foods such as bagged salads are highly processed, e.g. chlorine may be added to keep cut lettuce fresh for longer. Some evidence suggests that this level of processing and packaging reduces the nutritional content of salads,” the study added.

Alternatively, it suggested that reusable packaging could be used as it is widely used in B2B distribution.

“In shorter supply chains, reusable packaging becomes preferable, with factors such as transport mode and rate of return becoming important,” it noted.

The study suggested that gaining an understanding of how to systemically implement reusable packaging solutions should be a top priority of the packaging and food industry.

“Wrapping, bottling and packing food in plastic doesn’t systemically prevent food waste, and sometimes even causes it. It’s a red herring that’s causing terrible pollution of our land, sea and air,” said Meadhbh Bolger, resource justice campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

EU decision-makers, she went on to say, “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 findings of the study is in contrast to a 2016 US study, which found that plastic packaging could reduce environmental costs by nearly four times.

Against common misperception around plastics, that study, carried out by Trucost and published in July 2016, found that replacing plastics in consumer products and packaging with a mix of alternative materials that provide the same function would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion annually. 

“That’s because strong, lightweight plastics help us do more with less material, which provides environmental benefits throughout the lifecycle of plastic products and packaging,” the Trucost study revealed.

The study also concluded that the environmental costs of alternative materials can be lower per tonne of production but are greater in aggregate due to the much larger quantities of material needed to fulfill the same purposes as plastics.

Asked to comment on the Trucost results, Bolger said analysis looks at substituting plastics in consumer products and packaging with alternatives that perform the same function and with the same supply chains.

"They say 'For example, a typical plastic soft drink bottle contains 30g of plastic. But if replaced by a weighted average mix of alternative materials currently used in the market, an equivalent capacity bottle would require 141 grams of alternative materials such as glass, tin or aluminum in the US,'" explained Bolger.

Extrapolating to the entire consumer goods sector, over 342 tonnes of alternative material would be needed to replace the 84 tonnes of plastic used in consumer products and packaging in 2015, according to Trucost

"However, what we did in our report was to take a different view of the whole food and packaging system - beyond simply replacing one single-use material (plastic in this case) for another whilst keeping the same supply, delivery etc. system.

"Instead we looked at changing supply chain lengths (which makes a big difference to viability of heavier materials), reusable alternatives for packaging and zero packaging systems," she noted.

All of these "are viable and exist", she concluded.

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