Environment & energy, Trade and industry, Law | Australia, Asia, The World

16 June 2021

Plastic food packaging and food waste are piling up across the globe and causing environmental havoc, but there is a way forward, Jorie Malsch and Cecilia Tortajada write.

Plastic and food waste have become part of daily life, and global trends indicate that waste generation will surpass population growth by more than double by the middle of this century.

In absolute terms, the United States and China are the largest solid waste producers. At a regional level, East Asia and the Pacific produce almost one quarter of all solid waste, followed by Europe and Central Asia with 20 per cent.

This is not without cost. If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter behind the United States and China. Additionally, waste in the environment causes major problems for wildlife.

Despite the serious economic, social, and environmental impacts of waste, there are no signs that these trends will change any time soon. On the contrary, they are expected to continue increasing due to population growth, economic activities, and consumption practices.

Plastic food packaging is an increasingly urgent issue. When plastic builds up it degrades the environment, but it is also a highly valuable packaging material for prolonging the shelf-life of food products and protecting them throughout the supply chain. This means the issue is both perpetuated by and mitigated by continuing to use plastic packaging.

More on this: Getting serious about waste management

As such, removing plastic packaging altogether cannot be considered an effective solution on a large scale. Instead, policymakers should focus on optimising plastic food packaging if they hope for positive results.

For example, some food products use more plastic packaging than is needed, especially produce with natural protection – like citrus fruits, onions, and watermelons. This should be minimised. Items that are more easily damaged like leafy greens, apples, and tomatoes have the potential to last much longer if they are packaged in plastic, reducing waste by preventing spoilage.

By recognising the areas where plastic packaging is necessary as opposed to where it is superfluous, its usage can be refined accurately to prevent waste.

When plastic packaging is necessary, the proportion of recycled plastic must be increased. However, only a small portion of plastic containers get recycled. This means most plastic food packaging must be made from completely new material, even though many recyclable plastics have been disposed in landfills.

Of course, it is essential to be aware that not all plastics are recyclable. More flexible film plastics – such as produce bags at the supermarket – are typically not able to be recycled due to their propensity to get caught in machinery.

Additionally, plastic food packages with food stains and residue are also not able to be recycled due to contamination. This means that decreasing the amount of food that is left behind in plastic containers and packages supports recycling processes and could be encouraged to achieve a decrease in food waste.

Ultimately, rather than trying to simply reduce absolute amounts of plastic, accurate labelling of expiry dates, the incorporation of larger amounts of recycled material, and efficient waste management systems could all lead to a reduction in waste without sacrificing the usefulness of plastic.

As for food waste, the United States produces roughly 34.5 billion kilograms from households alone each year, with individual customers ultimately throwing out, on average, one fifth of their groceries annually.

More on this: Podcast: Can Australia make its waste work?

There are various reasons food goes to waste, including spoilage, over-preparation, over-purchasing, and date label inconsistencies. Wastage from date labels is one area that presents potential for progress. The United States, like many countries, does not have a standardised labelling system, and manufacturers of products can label according to their own preferences.

This leads to products being labelled as ‘best by’, ‘use by’ or ‘best if used by’, among others. The variety in date labels leads to confusion about whether it is the safety or quality of food products that expires, even though in most cases, food products are safe to consume after the labelled dates, with the exception of baby food.

Some action on this issue has been taken, with the introduction of the Food Date Labelling Act in 2019 to advocate for the nationwide use of the ‘best if used by’ description, but the bill has not yet become law.

By mandating specific terminology for food product expiration, studies estimate that 15 per cent of avoidable food waste can be diverted from landfills. This policy could be replicated in other countries.

Every year, food waste piles up in landfills, emitting carbon dioxide and methane as it decomposes among other waste. This issue, left unaddressed, will continue to produce massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

Plastic container and packaging generation have increased drastically since data records began. All that plastic has yet to degrade and continues to infiltrate the natural environment, damaging ecosystems. Without significant reduction, plastic will continue to harm the natural environment and the economy – it even occupies roughly six per cent of the world’s petroleum harvests.

While these issues are massive and pressing, there are clear reduction strategies that can be encouraged on every level of society, from individuals to corporations to governments.

Ending the use of plastic in the world may be unrealistic, but there is a way forward.

Optimising plastic packaging use, labelling it with accurate and standardised information, and incorporating higher percentages of recycled content are all steps policymakers could make a real difference to the globe’s plastic food packaging and food waste problems.

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