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Reversing the tide on the plastic food packaging backlash

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Supermarket aisle

With mounting public and media pressure on supermarkets to cut down on plastic packaging, it is vital to understand the importance of this valuable material for society and the environment.

A 2017 Populus survey of 2,000 British adults found that ninety-one per cent of respondents want supermarkets to introduce plastic-free aisles, representing a growing anti-plastic movement driven by consumer anxieties about its perceived impact on the environment. Concerns surrounding waste and the presence of plastic in the ocean and landfills are central to this campaign.

A reduction in plastic packaging would however pose greater sustainability dangers. Lubna Edwards, Sustainability Director at LINPAC (Klöckner Pentaplast), said: “The plastic-free movement is well-intentioned but ultimately counterproductive in its efforts to protect the environment. There needs to be an education process to enlighten the public about the negative ecological and societal consequences of doing away with plastic and replacing it with alternative materials that do not deliver equivalent sustainable and functional benefits.”

First and foremost, plastic doesn’t have to end up as eco system litter. One of the most versatile materials to recycle, it can be repurposed again and again or even turned into fuel. The water bottle for your morning run could become the smartphone you use to catch up on social media, your glasses frames could become your next credit card – the cycle goes on. All these products can live several other lives after their initial usage has ended if we simply take a few seconds to put them in a recycling bin.

While plastic isn’t compostable or fully biodegradable, it rates highly in sustainability. Sustainable food packaging isn’t just about recycling or decomposition – it’s also about being resourceful and fully functional, maximising food safety while extending shelf-life by protecting and preserving food as it survives the rigours of the supply and value chain. It involves lowering carbon footprint, lightweighting, presentation and helping to deliver a circular economy. Plastic ticks all these boxes.

One of the most critical megatrends that plastic packaging addresses is food waste. A third of food produced for human consumption is wasted globally, squandering the incalculable amount of energy that goes into taking food from farm to fork.

Food is most often wasted when it is damaged throughout the supply chain or when it is improperly preserved. In order to achieve extended shelf life, fresh produce, meat and dairy products in particular require the barrier protection against gas, aromas and moisture which plastic is so superior in providing. No other material is able to perform this task so well and without it these products would be vulnerable to harm and spoiling - posing risks to health and contributing significantly to food waste.

Edwards added: “Just take a look in your fridge – would the raw meat or fish that’s been in there for a week be edible if it were wrapped in paper? Would the tropical fruits be intact after travelling thousands of miles without proper protection? Plastic packaging is necessary for keeping your food safe, fresh and tasty. Also consider this fact - the amount of energy and carbon emissions associated with food waste far exceeds that used in manufacturing packaging that has been specifically designed to protect the food.

“It’s about finding the right balance - we can’t have it both ways. If we are truly to protect the planet and meet consumer and societal needs, an element of consumer responsibility is necessary. We need to protect and preserve products in something that avoids damage and waste while also minimising impact on the environment.

“When plastic packaging has performed its task, all it takes is to place it in a recycling bin to conserve resources and reduce littering – it really is that simple. We have a collective responsibility to protect our planet and meet basic consumer needs, and plastic packaging is a critical part of the food supply chain which helps to deliver that. Demonising plastic isn’t the solution. Truly understanding the benefits of this valuable resource is”

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