Plastic packaging not reducing food waste, new report says

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 10 April 2018

A new report by Zero Waste Europe and Friends of the Earth Europe has revealed the limitations and wastefulness of plastic food packaging, and says we can and must reduce food waste and plastic pollution at the same time.

Plastic packaged peppers
© SABIC, PR069

In the supermarket customers are led to believe that fruit and veg wrapped in plastic are somehow cleaner and safer and will cause less food wastage.

Dr Sue Kinsey,
MCS Senior Pollution Policy Officer

In the UK, over a quarter of the avoidable food thrown away each year is still in its opened or unopened plastic packaging says the report.

The report: ‘Unwrapped: How throwaway plastic is failing to solve Europe’s food waste problem and what we need to do instead’, shows how, between 2004 and 2014, household food waste in the EU doubled to an estimated 30 million tonnes per year. Plastic packaging waste increased by 50% over the same period, reaching over 15 million tonnes, although part of this may be attributable to new countries joining the EU. The best-available data suggests around 40% of plastic packaging waste comes from food packaging.

The report says that plastic packaging has not provided a comprehensive solution to food waste. In Europe, annual per-capita use of plastic packaging has grown simultaneously with levels of food waste since the 1950s – now at 30kg and 173kg respectively.

Plastics make up 85% of beach litter worldwide, 61% of which are single-use plastics and mostly linked to the food industry, such as crisp packets and sweet wrappers, food containers and cutlery.

The most recent MCS Great British Beach Clean report found that ‘on the go’ items - cardboard cups, plastic cutlery, foil wrappers, straws, sandwich packets, lolly sticks, plastic bottles, drinks cans, glass bottles, plastic cups, lids and stirrers - made up 20% of all litter found on the UKs beaches. 138 pieces of ‘on the go’ litter were found on average per 100m of beaches cleaned and surveyed by almost 7,000 MCS volunteers last September.

Dr Sue Kinsey, MCS Senior Pollution Policy Officer says there’s a feeling among consumers that plastic wrapped fruit and veg is cleaner: “In the supermarket customers are led to believe that fruit and veg wrapped in plastic are somehow cleaner and safer and will cause less food wastage. However, this saving of food wastage is mainly for the distributor/retailer’s advantage as it often results in people buying more than they need – this food then rots in the home out of sight of the industry/retailer.

The fact that there is loose food in supermarkets and independent shops shows that the hygiene and safety claims put forward do not really add up. Furthermore, fruit and vegetables in plastic are often ‘bulk’ buys and are sold at a lower price than the equivalent loose item within the same store, again encouraging over consumption leading to waste.”

The report also found 37% of food sold in the EU came wrapped in plastic, mostly single-use and that 79% of consumers in the UK said that food products sold by retailers are over-packaged.

The authors of the report say the environmental impacts of plastics are systematically underestimated in decision-making for food packaging design. The most commonly used tool for analysing food packaging is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which tends to simplify the drivers of food waste and overstate the benefits of plastic packaging.

Pre-determined packaging formats and sizes restrict fresh produce deemed suitable or desirable for retailers, leading to edible food being rejected and thus driving food waste. For example, the practice of top and tailing green beans to fit a certain packaging size resulted in 30-40% of the beans being wasted

Multi-packs increase the possibility of food waste by restricting choice and forcing consumers to buy more. For example selling citrus fruits, onions and garlic in plastic mesh nets, and bananas and potatoes in plastic bags, have been shown to cause consumers to buy more than they need

Following the publication of its Plastics Strategy in January 2018, the European Commission is preparing a set of legislative and non-legislative measures to tackle plastic pollution to be released over the next couple of years. The headline issue will be a proposed law to reduce single-use plastics, expected by mid-May. It will tackle the ten most-littered single-use plastic items - including plastic straws, plastic food containers, and plastic cutlery - through a range of policies including reduction targets, improving product design, incentivising high waste collection, and using non-plastic materials to manufacture them.

The report concludes that there are three key ways in which plastic and food waste can be reduced. It says packaging should be used only when it’s needed, the food supply chain needs to be shortened and policy must be introduced to cut down on single-use plastic waste by boosting the circular economy and coming up with more innovative ‘eco’ design.

Do you want to help stop the plastic tide? We are currently calling on UK governments to put a charge on single-use plastic throwaway items

Actions you can take