Food waste and plastic pollution: ‘The two key sustainability drivers are carbon and circularity’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Efforts to cut plastic use should be weighed against food waste, experts argue / Pic: GettyImages-Larina Marina
Efforts to cut plastic use should be weighed against food waste, experts argue / Pic: GettyImages-Larina Marina

Related tags Food waste Plastic Circular economy Recycling

Shoppers have a contradictory relationship with plastic food packaging. On the one hand, we have witnessed a massive public backlash against plastic pollution. On the other, we recognise the need to protect and preserve food and that plastic is, currently, the most effective solution. What is the right balance?

Plastic pollution is a big problem. Data from A Plastic Ocean reveals that 350 million tonnes of plastic is being produced each year, 8m tonnes of which makes its way into the ocean. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

Plastic has become an integrated part of our lives. In the food and beverage sector, it is a cost-effective solution that protects food from contaminants and extends shelf life.

The use of plastic packaging is therefore closely linked to another important environmental issue: food waste.

Food waste is an economic, humanitarian and environmental crisis.

One-third of the food produced today is wasted. At the same time, around 800m people go to bed hungry every night. The FAO estimates food waste represents an economic loss of US$700bn globally each year.

waste food bin recycle environment nito100
30% of the food produced each year is wasted ©iStock/nito100

If food waste was a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter, behind only China and the US. Avoiding food waste can reduce our overall carbon footprint by up to 8%. Indeed, NGO Project Drawdown suggests that reducing food waste is 15.7 times more important to cutting our carbon footprint than recycling.

“When we think about food waste and packaging, the two key sustainability drivers are carbon and circularity,”​ Tony Kingsbury, Sustainability Director for EMEA at packaging company Dow observed.

“When we waste food, we also waste all the energy and resources that go into bringing that food to market. The fertilizer, trucks, refrigeration and energy used to pump water are lost and cannot be recovered. Typically, the packaging makes up less than 10% of carbon in the total food system,”​ he told FoodNavigator.

Research from sustainability consultancy Denkstatt confirms that the environmental cost of packaging is offset by its role in food waste reduction.

“The environmental benefit of avoided waste is usually five to ten times higher than the environmental cost of the packaging. Product protection pays off especially for food products with resource intensive production.

“Optimised packaging provides the required product protection, uses as little material as possible and is recyclable or reusable wherever possible,”​ the Denkstatt Stop Waste – Save Food​ report stated.

Noting that packaging material is not ‘good or bad in itself’, Denkstatt advises that packaging should be designed to provide the required product protection, using as little material as possible, and be recyclable or reusable ‘wherever possible’.

The need for systems thinking

plastic bottle recycling istock
EC backs increased recycling rates for circular economy / ©iStock

Circular models that support recycling are supported by regulators and consumers across Europe.

As part of the European Commission’s Green Deal, the EC has adopted a new Circular Economy Action Plan. Provisions on packaging include new mandatory requirements on what is allowed in the EU, including the reduction of overpackaging. Specifically on plastics, the policy also includes mandatory requirements for recycled content and ‘special attention’ on microplastics as well as biobased and biodegradable plastics.

This builds on the EU’s Single-Use Plastic Directive, which states that where alternatives exist on the market, their single-use counterparts will be banned in all Member States.

The EU is also committed to meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to halve food waste by 2030. Under its Farm to Fork strategy, also part of the Green Deal, the EC is stepping up action to address food waste.

Dow’s Kingsbury stressed that a joined-up approach should be taken to both objectives. “Recycling or circularity is the other big driver right now. I am personally worried that in our quest to be more circular we may compromise the best packaging to reduce food waste. Governments don’t tend to think in systems, and food is a system. The people thinking about food waste are not typically the ones thinking about how we can reduce packaging waste,”​ he warned. “We need to think in system terms here, not separately.”

Innovation prioritising sustainability

When determining the most climate-friendly way of delivering different food stuffs to consumers, many factors need to be considered, from the divergent requirements of different products for protection during transport and storage to variations in how consumers handle food in the home.

“Packaging is often described as a big environmental problem. But is necessary for transporting and protecting the food. We should focus on the design of the packaging so that less food is wasted, since food waste has a much bigger impact on the climate,”​ argued Helén Williams, associate professor of environmental and energy systems of Karlstad University in Sweden.

Kingsbury revealed the ‘big innovations’ Dow sees emerging ‘strive to create more recyclable packages [that] keep its contents safe’. One way this is being achieved is by reducing the complexity of packaging.

“We have a number of innovations moving into the market that take packaging with multiple layers and made from many different materials to now be made of all polyethylene or compatibilized with polyethylene, enabling content protection and recyclability,”​ he explained.

For example, Dow partnered with Kellogg’s Bear Naked Granola brand to produce recyclable pouches for its product.

Evian goes plastic free
evian's new bottle is made from recycled plastic

Taking a similar approach, Danone’s evian bottled water brand is launching a new bottle with an engraved logo as a way to reduce the use of virgin plastic. The bottle took close to two years to develop and, excluding the cap, it is created from 100% recycled plastic.

Innovative packaging solutions are also being developed specifically to reduce food waste, according to Lux research analyst Dr Harini Venkataraman.

“We’re now seeing innovation and new solution development across the food supply chain, from pre-harvest preservation technologies to post-retail and in-home storage solutions,”​ Dr Vebkataraman, who authored Lux’s Preserving the Food Chain​ report, observed.

Technologies like modified atmospheric packaging (MAP) are used to adjust atmospheric gas content to optimise shelf life. However, developers are now looking beyond passive MAP to adopt ‘active packaging methods’, she noted.

“Promising developments include academic research projects like EU-funded NanoPack, which has focused on flexible plastic food film with antioxidants and antimicrobial properties to delay food spoilage. Sensor-enabled smart packaging solutions are gaining importance for tracking the quality of perishable food products, with digital connectivity as a catalyst for the growth of these solutions.”

CPG companies are also experimenting with the use of alternative materials that deliver the necessary protection for their products. For instance, a consortium including Diageo, PepsiCo and Unilever has developed a 100% plastic-free, paper-based bottle.

Announcing the breakthrough, Ewan Andrew, Chief Sustainability Officer, Diageo, said: “We’re proud to have created this world first. We are constantly striving to push the boundaries within sustainable packaging and this bottle has the potential to be truly ground-breaking.”

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