Plastic packaging failing to prevent food waste and may even increase it, study finds

By agency reporter
April 11, 2018

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 pioneering new research.

The study shows how annual per-capita use of plastic packaging has grown simultaneously with levels of food waste since the 1950s and now stands at 30kg and 173kg respectively.

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 per cent of the beans being wasted.
  • 37 per cent of all food sold in the EU is wrapped in plastic – the most widely used packaging material.
  • The cost of food waste in the EU is estimated at €143 billion each year, equivalent to the annual operational budget of the EU.

Meadhbh Bolger, resource justice campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said, “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.”

Julian Kirby, Friends of the Earth plastic campaigner for Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland said: “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.”

The study also highlights how the environmental impacts of plastics can be systematically underestimated when making policies which 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” methodology the Commission is leaving the door open to policies that fail to tackle plastic pollution.

Analysis of the Life Cycle Assessment tool – in principle, the most comprehensive framework in analysing and assessing the environmental impact of goods and services – shows that it commonly simplifies the drivers of food waste and overstates the benefits of plastic packaging. This includes focusing on carbon emissions as the key environmental impact, and assuming all plastics are recycled, incinerated or landfilled after use – not reflecting the reality of current practice, where recycling levels are hugely variable and often extremely low, and a substantial fraction of plastic packaging ends up leaking into the environment. It also routinely fails to look at package-free or reusable options, which the report shows are on the rise across Europe, albeit in need of political support.

Ariadna Rodrigo, Sustainable Products Campaigner at Zero Waste Europe said: “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 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."

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.

* Read Unwrapped: how throwaway plastic is faliing to solve Europe's food waste problem here

* Friends of the Earth


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