Packaged Fresh Food? Perhaps Not
The general narrative touted by the food industry is that wrapped food cuts down on food waste. However in April 2018, FOEE released the report Unwrapped: How Throwaway Plastic Is Failing To Solve Europe’s Food Waste Problem (And What We Need To Do Instead).
Food waste is an endemic problem in developed countries, with at least a third of food produced going to waste. In countries such as the UK, less than 10% of income is spent on food. In poor regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, its around half of a typical income.
In the EU, food production exceeds demand. Instead of reducing food waste, packaging has increased waste as it has led to a convenience orientated fast food ‘on-the-go’ takeaway culture. The average person is responsible for about 30kg plastic packaging waste per annum. The following graph illustrates how household food and packaging waste has risen over the past 20 years.
There is an economic cost related to single use packaging:
with 95% of its value lost to the economy after this first use, a loss with an estimated value of EUR 100 billion globally. Compared to other plastic applications, packaging tends to have a significantly shorter product lifetime. Most products become waste in the same year in which they were produced.
The Ellen McArthur report highlighted the practise of reducing plastic bulk in products. But:
Efforts by governments and industry to limit the impact of plastic packaging or curtail over-packaging have had limited or unforeseen consequences. For example, packaging designers often focus on light-weighting, in order to reduce emissions and economic contributions to EPR [Extended Producer Responsibility] schemes. While some evidence suggests that the average weight of plastic packaging has fallen since 2004, this, together with trends towards multi-material, flexible packaging and a growing demand for convenience goods, has resulted in packaging which is increasingly complex and difficult to recycle and has not led to a decrease in absolute quantities of plastic packaging by weight.
One of the problems of today’s food markets is complicated supply chains, which often involve transporting food over long distances. This can lead to standardised food packaging that may not always accommodate the actual produce, causing food waste. In addition there is the demand of retailers for produce to meet certain cosmetic criteria, causing the waste of perfectly edible produce:
Packaging has been shown to play a role in determining the grading standards for food, thus contributing to food waste. Changing retail and packaging practices offers opportunities to recognise the value of agricultural produce and simultaneously reduce food and packaging waste. In addition, shortening supply chains can bring consumers closer to farmers and facilitate sustainable approaches to packaging.
Local production and simpler supply chains e.g. farmers markets, can markedly improve and reduce wasteful practises:
Policies to support a dietary shift towards more seasonal and locally produced food have the potential to bring about significant resource savings. One industry group estimated that 95% of supermarket products currently comes from processors rather than directly from farmers, while just 15% of farmers sell more than half of their produce directly to consumers. In 2013, Europe had net imports of around 27 million tonnes of soybeans and soybean products for oil production and animal feed. And while many everyday products, such as bananas, coffee and cocoa cannot be produced in Europe, efforts should be made to reduce the number of intermediaries and ensure a fair deal for local producers.
Food processing generates a significant amount of food waste (around 20%). Pre-prepared and convenience foods are the main drivers of packaging waste:
Products such as pre-cut fruit and vegetables, pre-packaged sandwiches, sushi and wraps are one of the fastest growing segments in the food industry, reflecting urban lifestyles which favour food on-the-go and reduced time for preparing meals. 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. In the UK, 37,000 tonnes (178 million bags) of prepared salad are thrown away each year. A combination of short shelf-lives, high packaging to product ratios, and dependence on refrigeration make ready-to-eat foods vulnerable to waste and inefficiency.
Small sachets and pouches for condiments such as coffee, milk etc. are major contributors to leakage and waste. As such, ‘A report for the plastics industry estimated these plastics to have zero recycling potential.’
The retail sector is a source of food and plastic waste. It has become dominated by a small number of large supermarket chains. The amount of overall waste generated is hard to gauge due to a lack of transparency within the sector. But the way the industry operates is a driver of waste. Given the interface between households and retailers, a significant amount of household waste can be attributed to retail practices. Marketing plays an important role in this process:
For retailers, packaging serves as an important marketing tool to create competitive advantage and increase sales. In self-service supermarkets, in particular, packaging plays a central role in product sales and marketing considerations. While effective marketing can increase retail sales, it can also lead to over-purchasing by consumers, an important driver of food waste.
Practises such as selling multi-packs, ‘3 for 2’ deals, fruit and vegetables in plastic nets and bags all contribute to the problem. In many cases selling loose produce would be more effective at reducing waste, because pre-packed food can encourage consumers to buy more than they need.
However there does appear to be a trend of emerging retailers that are moving away from extensive packaging and orienting more towards the zero waste circular economy model. This includes farmers markets and retailers linking up with local food production.
Given the fact that at least half of the food waste generated come from households, this trend is an important step forward.
Another important factor relating to food waste is its relative low cost to income. This facilitates a culture of socially acceptable food waste.
From an industry perspective, there is the narrative that shrink wrapping produce can extend shelf-life. But this ‘says nothing about consumer behaviour or, indeed, the implications for nutrition and taste. One study estimated that over one-quarter of avoidable food waste every year is thrown away in its packaging, either opened or unopened.’ FoEE offers some tips on plastic-free storage:
Use reusable bags, mason jars and containers when food shopping and storing food at home.
Store bread in a cloth bag inside a wooden bread bin, as it absorbs moisture (unlike a plastic bag) and prevents bread from moulding quickly.
Choose retailers which use minimal packaging and allow food to be bought in bulk.
Store the stems of leafy vegetables and herbs (e.g. lettuce, celery, parsley, coriander) in water to keep them fresh.
Understand which fruit and vegetables should be stored at room temperature (e.g. tomatoes and lemons).
Understand which foods spoil more quickly when wrapped in plastic (e.g. mushrooms, soft cheeses).
Store apples with potatoes but separate from other fruits: apples emit ethylene gas which speeds up the ripening process of fruits and vegetables but has the opposite effect on potatoes, preventing them from sprouting.
And, as the report points out, sustainable practices already exist and indeed was once the norm:
There is a risk of losing oral traditions and food knowledge when our food system becomes dependent on convenience food and single-use packaging, e.g. crop varieties and origin (country and ecosystem), food preparation and associated cultural heritage. Likewise, while there is a temptation to look to innovation to ‘solve’ sustainability issues, much of the knowledge needed to reduce waste already exists.
Not surprisingly, the food services sector is rather wasteful. Just how much is difficult to estimate. Drivers include:
Storage losses, as a result of damaged or out-of-date products.
Preparation losses, due to fruit and vegetable peels, spoiled or dropped food.
Serving losses, food that did not end up on the customer’s plate because it remained in the kitchen or in the buffet.
Plate waste, food that remained on the customer’s plate.
Small format packaging, such as condiment sachets and single-serve containers (e.g. for butter, milk and spreads), are common items in the food services sector. These items generate packaging waste because they cannot be recycled, and generate food waste as they are often left unfinished by customers or disposed of unopened by businesses.
Then of course there is the problems of takeaway food:
Takeaway and delivery services offer convenience but also have the potential to be highly wasteful. The on-the-go nature of takeaway food increases the risk of littering, with the majority of the items most commonly found in beach clean-ups being linked to food services.
One of the best platforms for tackling waste is at local authority level. Schemes for redistributing food waste and reducing packaging are already happening. Urban agriculture is another way of localising food production, eliminating complex supply chains.
The general conclusion of the report is that rising food waste and increasing packaging waste go hand and hand. The shift to a convenience orientated takeaway, preprepared ready meal culture lies at the root of the problem.
Commenting on EU strategy, the report states:
The dual challenge of reducing food waste and plastic packaging waste, as well as their impacts on the environment, society and the economy, require urgent attention. Both are elements in the EU’s Circular Economy Package and there is potential for their integration into the recently-published EU Strategy on Plastics in a Circular Economy and the forthcoming 2018 food package initiative, which is expected to include a legislative proposal on the EU food supply chain.
Joined-up thinking is needed in the development of these two legislative initiatives and associated follow-up actions, including the need to identify and realise the multiple benefits of simultaneously addressing food and plastic waste.
Is the prospect of a zero waste circular economy likely to become a reality any time soon? Using the situation in Scotland as an example could offer a pointer as to a possible direction.
The Scottish Zero Waste initiative
In 2010, the Scottish Government (SG) introduced its Zero Waste Plan. This set out the Governments policy on how to tackle waste in Scotland, with these key measures:
Development of a Waste Prevention Programme for all wastes, ensuring the prevention and reuse of waste is central to all our actions and policies
Landfill bans for specific waste types therefore reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and capturing the value from these resources
Separate collections of specific waste types, including food, to avoid contaminating other materials, increasing reuse and recycling opportunities and contributing to our renewable energy targets
Two new targets that will apply to all waste: 70 per cent target recycled, and maximum 5 per cent sent to landfill, both by 2025
Restrictions on the input to all energy from waste facilities, in the past only applicable to municipal waste, therefore encouraging greater waste prevention, reuse and recycling.
Encouraging local authorities and the resource management sector to establish good practice commitments and work together to create consistent waste management services, benefiting businesses and the public.
Improved information on different waste sources, types and management highlighting further economic and environmental opportunities
Measure the carbon impacts of waste to prioritise the recycling of resources which offer the greatest environmental and climate change outcomes.
The report Developing the Evidence Base for Plastics Recycling in Scotland from Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) was published in 2012. It offers ‘A detailed review of the current position of plastic recycling in Scotland, based on analysis of tonnage arisings, the established infrastructure for managing waste plastics and estimating current and future plastics recycling by type and source.’ It provides a projection of the direction that recycling should take in Scotland. It also notes that Scotland is linked into a wider UK based system, with low grade waste exported to the far East. However that has now changed, with countries such as china now blocking imports of waste. The main conclusions of the report are:
It is necessary for collection, management and reprocessing activities to all be developed to increase plastic recycling levels in Scotland
These must be developed in parallel. It is not economically practical to expect one stage of the supply chain to be developed in advance of others
There is significant value in optimising the integration of each part of the supply chain, to optimise the quantity and quality of materials available for reprocessing
Scotland must be considered as an integral part of the UK plastic recycling infrastructure. New initiatives that complement existing UK recycling capability will offer maximum benefit to Scotland
Increasing the quality (in terms of materials specificity, cleanliness and contamination) of materials collected will increase the potential for local (UK) recycling of materials. Underpinning the SG strategy is the The Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012, which in itself is based on the equivalent EU legislation.
In 2015, the Charter for Household Recycling was rolled out across local authorities in Scotland, who will commit:
To improve our household waste and recycling services to maximise the capture of, and improve the quality of, resources from the waste stream, recognising the variations in household types and geography to endeavour that our services meet the needs of all our citizens.
To encourage our citizens to participate in our recycling and reuse services to ensure that they are fully utilised.
To operate our services so that our staff are safe, competent and treated fairly with the skills required to deliver effective and efficient resource management on behalf of our communities.
To develop, agree, implement and review a Code of Practice that enshrines the current best practice to deliver cost effective and high-performing recycling services and tell all of our citizens and community partners about both this charter and the code of practice.
The aim will be to engage citizens as well as Business and industry, who will also be expected to engage with the Charter.
In addition, the Scottish Materials Brokerage Service was established. This aims to tackle the fragmentation of waste processing and to improve the overall effectiveness of the system:
The brokerage service will address these issues by matching up the supply and demand for high value recycling, which will provide certainty of supply for those who wish to invest in Scottish reprocessing plants, and certainty of demand for local authorities. Creating the right conditions to grow the reprocessing sector will allow valuable materials to be retained in Scotland and provide the opportunity to create jobs.
Accompanying this process is the Scottish Government’s Code of Practice on Sampling and Reporting at Materials Recovery Facilities. The outline of this process has been produced by SEPA:
This guidance document has been jointly developed by Zero Waste Scotland and Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), to assist licence or permit holders of material recovery facilities (MRFs) in Scotland with the introduction of sampling and testing regimes that are consistent with the requirements of the Code of Practice on Sampling and Reporting at Materials Recovery Facilities issued by the Scottish Ministers.
This document summarises the key elements of the sampling and reporting requirements set out in the Code of Practice (hereinafter referred to as “the Code”), and by following this guidance you are more likely to satisfy SEPA (the Regulator) that you are fulfilling your requirements of the Code.
This guidance was derived from WRAPs “Sampling and Testing Guidance for Material Facilities” to ensure a consistent approach to material quality sampling is applied across the UK.
Waste is a major problem, particualry plastic waste. It has become a major pollution problem that requires urgent action.
Food waste is also a major issue. Modern food prodution has bacome one of the largest emitters of greeenhouse gases. Food is overproduced in developed countries whist almost a billion people in developing countries face food poverty.
Dear Green Planet is committed to zero waste and to the implementation of a mangeable and practical circular economy.
In the coming weeks we will be developing workshops and working with stakeholders, working towards a more sustainable system. We will follow up with subbsequent articles on this issue.