Plastic and food wasteEthical Food & Drink News & Features
A rise in plastic food packaging is failing to reduce Europe’s growing food waste problem, and in some cases may even be fuelling it, according to new research.
The study reveals that 37% of all food sold in the EU is wrapped in plastic – the most widely used packaging material – yet the cost of food waste in the EU is estimated at €143 billion each year, equivalent to the annual operational budget of the EU.
’A red herring’
The research shows how annual per-capita use of plastic packaging has grown simultaneously with levels of food waste since the 1950s.
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, though part of this may be due to new countries joining the EU.
‘The results are in: 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. 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.’
Resource justice campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe
Retailers driving waste
The review of available evidence published by Friends of the Earth Europe and Zero Waste Europe, on behalf of the Rethink Plastic alliance, also reveals that big retailers are driving food and plastic packaging waste in Europe through practices such as food grading standards, and packaging food in multipacks and small format packs.
One study showed that chopping green beans to fit plastic packaging resulted in 30-40% of the beans being wasted.
‘We already knew that plastic packaging is harming our environment and wildlife – now it appears its role in avoiding food waste may have been over-estimated too. The UK government must help stop this pollution crisis by phasing out the vast majority of single-use plastics within five years, as part of an action plan to end the use of all but the most essential plastics.’
Friends of the Earth plastic campaigner for Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland
The problem with Life Cycle Assessments
The study also highlights how the environmental impacts of plastics can be systematically underestimated when making policies that impact food packaging – including some in the new measures being developed by the European Commission to tackle plastic pollution.
With the current use of the ‘Life Cycle Assessment’ (LCA) methodology, the researchers say the Commission is ‘leaving the door open to policies that fail to tackle plastic pollution’.
The LCA tool is, in principle, the most comprehensive framework for analysing and assessing the environmental impact of goods and services. However, the study shows that it commonly simplifies the drivers of food waste and overstates the benefits of plastic packaging.
By focusing on carbon emissions as the key environmental impact, and assuming all plastics are recycled, incinerated or landfilled after use, the research suggests LCAs don’t reflect the reality on the ground.
Real-world recycling levels are hugely variable and often extremely low, and a substantial fraction of plastic packaging ends up leaked into the environment. The researchers say LCAs also ‘routinely fail to look at package-free or reusable options’, which the report shows are on the rise across Europe, despite being in need of political support.
‘The packaging industry and the European Commission are not practicing sound decision making when it comes to food packaging. Their methodology, which often ignores the impacts of plastic waste, result in to conclusions that favour complex food packs which are impossible to reuse or recycle. The result is the promotion of plastic packaging designed for landfill and incineration.’
Sustainable Products Campaigner at Zero Waste Europe
The findings come as the European Commission prepares legislation to tackle plastic pollution, with a number of measures including a draft law on single-use plastics expected before the summer.