Plastic packaging may lead to growing food waste despite manufacturers claiming plastic helps preserve food, a new pioneering report revealed this week.
The study by Friends of the Earth Europe and Zero Waste Europe puts the spotlight on big retailers and manufacturers employing tactics that may trick consumers into buying more packaged food than they need, driving both food and plastic waste.
The groups show that supermarkets selling fruits and vegetables in plastic bags or multi-packs restrict choice and therefore force consumers to buy more food and plastic. In the UK, over one quarter of the food thrown away each year was found still in its packaging.
Practices such as food grading standards, whereby retailers determine the size or shape of food, also tend to result in food waste. The practice of chopping green beans to fit a certain packaging size resulted in 30-40% of the beans being wasted.
The food packaging industry often maintains that plastic packaging is necessary to prevent food waste.
But the report, the first of its kind in Europe, shows that annual per-capita use of plastic packaging has grown simultaneously with levels of food waste in the past few decades.
“[…] 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,” said Meadhbh Bolger of Friends of the Earth Europe in a statement.
Plastic is the most widely used material for packaging, which is said to be one of the main reasons behind the current plastic pollution crisis. On average, Europeans throw away more than 30kg of plastic packaging per person every year.
The European Commission has promised to come up with new laws aimed at reducing single-use plastics, which include food containers and other forms of packaging.
“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,” Bolger concluded.
Citizens across Europe have recently called on swift action to solve the plastic pollution crisis, with many staging protests against the excessive amount of plastic used in supermarkets.
Shoppers at a supermarket near Bath, in the UK, ripped the wrapping off several products they bought and left the plastic packaging at the tills last month. A similar action was also staged in Brussels last Saturday, prompting Belgian supermarket chain Delheize to promise action to cut down on unnecessary plastic packaging, according to protesters.
Shoppers leave plastic packaging in boxes at Belgian supermarket Delheize on Saturday. Photo: Roberta Arbinolo
Meanwhile, enormous beach artworks are appearing across Europe highlighting marine plastic pollution in the run-up to Earth Day. A 35 metre sand etching has been created by one of Europe’s best-known beach artists Jehan-Benjamin Tarain for the European Environmental Bureau with support from Surfrider Foundation Europe.
The report shows how, 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, although part of this may be attributable to new countries joining the EU. The best-available data suggests around 40% of plastic packaging waste comes from food packaging.