Is plastic too good at what it does?
In January, UK Prime Minister Theresa May made a commitment to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042. Some food and drink companies have already pledged to reduce or eliminate plastic packaging.
The use of plastic in food production and distribution was discussed at the latest meeting of Campden BRI’s scientific and technical committee (STC). The committee is made up of retailers, manufacturers, suppliers and food service companies, as well as representatives from government and funding bodies, below is a summary of their discussion.
Why is plastic so good?
Plastic packaging helps to ensure that the food consumers eat is safe. It is a costeffective way to protect and preserve food and so it extends shelf life and reduces waste. The problem is that much plastic is used once and this has an environmental consequence. However, if less plastic is used it may affect the quality of the packaging, the packaging options available (such as modified atmospheres) and how appealing the product is to consumers.
What’s the alternative?
Any alternatives to plastics must keep food safe to eat. However, a big question is whether consumers will accept changes to packaging and any associated impacts, such as price rises, shorter shelf life and decreased product availability.
The choice of packaging material dictates the way food is distributed so changes in the supply chain need to happen alongside any investment in plastic alternatives.
Labelling may make plastic alternatives more acceptable to consumers by providing information about the environmental impact of a product, for example, if the packaging is recycled or easily recyclable, if it can be returned and reused, the overall carbon footprint of the product or if the producer is involved in a plastic recovery scheme.
What’s the future for plastic?
The future for plastic lies in reduction, replacement, reuse and recycling. Research into alternative packaging materials is vital and there is unlikely to be a ‘one size fits all’ solution.
Some plastic cannot be recycled and the infrastructure to recycle different types of plastic varies greatly in different areas. It’s also important to remember that plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely. Any recycling-based solutions need to be supported by both the right infrastructure and the will to reuse.