Plastic packaging and food waste

Is an increase in food waste set to become the unintended consequence of our plastic reduction journey?

Plastics have become a veritable battleground for the food sector, with major brands and SMEs alike committing to anything from a reduction in use to an outright ban. Even the BBC has waged 'War on Plastic' with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani exploring where the problem is coming from, and what we can all do to try and solve it.

In recent months we have seen landmark commitments from retailers, not least Sainsbury's which has made headlines as the first British supermarket to ditch plastic packaging for fruit, vegetables and pastry items.

We can't underestimate what important environmental steps these are. The enthusiasm with which UK industries have taken up this challenge is both impressive and encouraging and gives us hope that real progress will be made in the coming years.

But when making plans to transform packaging, it's critical that we consider what else is at stake – namely the role of plastic packaging and Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) gases in helping to minimise food waste.

The challenges facing the food sector are inter-related and inter-reliant and they cannot be viewed in isolation.

Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) is a well-established technology that keeps our food fresher for longer, extending shelf life. The technology also allows food to be preserved despite a reduction in salts and sugars. So far, so good.

The fact that modified atmospheres are typically created within plastic packaging however - the properties of which support the necessary retention or transfer of gases - is less well recognised.
So, what now? Of course, reducing single-use plastics is both commendable and necessary but surely making strides in one important area while losing ground in others is counterproductive?
The key lies with continued R&D and innovation. Businesses across the supply chain are exploring new products such as biodegradable polymers, cardboard, or the use of higher quality, higher grade plastics that can be easily recycled. That process of exploration and development must consider the suitability of those materials for the necessary gas retention or transfer required for a modified atmosphere, if we are to avoid a negative impact on food waste and public health.
The current drive to reduce the amount of plastic packaging required to contain the same amount of food product is a good example. This is a hugely positive step, but in so doing we reduce the amount of space available for the MAP gases that are central to food preservation. The challenge for organisations like ours is to ensure we can adapt the required gas mix to work within a reduced space, without negatively impacting shelf life. Encouragingly, our initial studies show that this is achievable. We have also tested existing MAP processes with biopolymers. Results vary dependent on the film and product involved but it's clear that there's real potential to explore this area further too. This is an exciting time for our sector.

But of course, it's not just about manufacturing processes. Greater dialogue with both the consumer and Government will also be key. Consumers must be equipped with the full picture, and further efforts are needed to ensure they are receptive to non-plastic alternatives as they emerge and committed to appropriate recycling and disposal of existing plastic packaging.
And what of the end game too? Recyclable plastics will clearly have a role to play but greater investment is needed from Government to ensure the required recycling infrastructure is in place.

Plastic with the potential to be recycled is not enough, we need real and tangible options. 
Of course, we must continue to wage war on plastics, but we must do so with a far greater consciousness of its wider implications of adding to the problem of food waste. By working together and addressing this sector's challenges more holistically, we have a far greater chance of all-round success.

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