Eliminating plastic food packaging is not the sustainable ‘silver bullet’ many would have us believe, writes Barry Twigg
According to the UN, there are some 800 million people whose daily food intake is less than that required to sustain a healthy life. In effect, they are starving. Yet, the same UN report highlights that 1.3 billion tonnes of food produced annually, worldwide, is either lost or wasted. The value of that waste is calculated to be over $1,000 billion!
The report claims that in total, 30 percent of the world’s food is wasted, climbing to 50 percent in some third world countries. As if these figures alone were not sufficiently shocking, an equally damaging problem is created by this food waste mountain: greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, if all this food waste was a country it would be the world’s third largest generator of greenhouse gas emissions, with only China and the USA generating a higher level than the 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 estimated to be the carbon footprint of all wasted food (see below).
Here in the UK, WRAP suggests that despite the reductions made since the introduction of the Courtauld Agreement, food waste is still some 10 million TPA with a value of £20 billion PA, with associated greenhouse gas emissions of 25 million tonnes. As UK households purchase around 40 million tonnes of food annually, this indicates that 25 percent of that total is wasted.
Whilst there are some caveats on the inedible parts of this waste, around 700,000 tonnes surplus from food manufacture, retail and food service is redistributed via charitable and commercial outlets.
In these circumstances it’s difficult to understand why some supermarkets are prioritising the replacement of plastic packaging, or indeed any packaging whatsoever, over reducing food waste. These actions are particularly perverse when considering food production and processing uses 10 times more of the earth’s resources in land, water, energy and fuel, than the plastic packaging in which it is wrapped. Surely, the emphasis should be on keeping the packaging and reducing the waste.
As appalling as these waste food figures are, consider what they would be without the much maligned plastic packaging. The following are just some examples of ‘shelf life’ extension due to their packaging (see below).
It is not possible to calculate the food waste and greenhouse gas emissions ‘saved’ by plastic packaging but if the UN and WRAP reports, alluded to earlier, on food waste and greenhouse gas emissions are correct, the savings amount to tens of millions of tonnes per year. If we take meat packaging as just one example, the use of vacuum packs, allied to oxygen scavengers and high barrier film, enable meat to remain fit for consumption weeks longer than when sold loose. The significance of this extended shelf life is particularly relevant as rotting meat is calculated to be the source of 20 percent of all food waste greenhouse gas emissions due to methane generation during decomposition.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that without the use of plastic food packaging, we could not sustain our current lifestyle. Whilst alternative materials could replace some plastic packaging, there is no current material that could universally replace plastic. And, even if we could, a recent study by academics from Heriot-Watt University said replacing plastics with other packaging such as glass, metal, or board, would double global energy consumption and triple greenhouse gas emissions. Hardly a desirable outcome for our planet! The same report also recognises that virtually all of the current alternative materials available, be they board, glass or aluminium, use more of the earth’s resources than plastic. As a consequence, it’s no exaggeration to claim if we genuinely want to reduce global warming and food waste, as well as eliminate hunger across the world, we should be using more plastic packaging, not less. It is equally sensible to claim global warming, food waste and 800 million malnourished people are much harder problems to solve than plastic litter and effectively disposing of plastic waste after it has served its useful purpose.
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