A recent study commissioned by Friends of the Earth Europe and Zero Waste Europe has found that a rise in plastic food packaging has not succeeded in reducing Europe's food waste problem, which has been estimated at 143 billion euros ($176 billion) annually.
In a statement released April 10, the two organizations said the study, produced by the Institute of European Environmental Policy, found that while plastic packaging has a role to play in protecting food and extending shelf-life, many packaging practices increased wastefulness of both food and packaging.
According to the study, annual per-capita use of plastic packaging has grown simultaneously with levels of food waste since the 1950s — now at 30 kilograms and 173 kilograms respectively.
“Plastic packaging is often heralded as a means of avoiding food waste but it has not provided a comprehensive solution. Growth in the application of plastic packaging has increased alongside the growth in food waste, with Europe's total demand for plastic rising to 49 million tonnes per year, of which 40 percent is used for packaging,” it went on to say.
Citing various studies, the report said ready-made foods, which are becoming increasingly predominant, were part of the problem because they added to plastic waste while reducing nourishment.
“Even seemingly fresh foods such as bagged salads are highly processed, e.g. chlorine may be added to keep cut lettuce fresh for longer. Some evidence suggests that this level of processing and packaging reduces the nutritional content of salads,” the study added.
Alternatively, it suggested that reusable packaging could be used as it is widely used in B2B distribution.
“In shorter supply chains, reusable packaging becomes preferable, with factors such as transport mode and rate of return becoming important,” it noted.
The study suggested that gaining an understanding of how to systemically implement reusable packaging solutions should be a top priority of the packaging and food industry.
“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, resource justice campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.
EU decision-makers, she went on to say, “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 localized food systems without disposable packaging.”
The findings of the study is in contrast to a 2016 U.S. study, which found that plastic packaging could reduce environmental costs by nearly four times.
Against common misconceptions around plastics, that study, carried out by Trucost and published in July 2016, found that replacing plastics in consumer products and packaging with a mix of alternative materials that provide the same function would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion annually.
“That's because strong, lightweight plastics help us do more with less material, which provides environmental benefits throughout the lifecycle of plastic products and packaging,” the Trucost study revealed.
The study also concluded that the environmental costs of alternative materials can be lower per tonne of production but are greater in aggregate due to the much larger quantities of material needed to fulfill the same purposes as plastics.
Plastics News Europe is seeking comment from Friends of the Earth Europe for their take on the findings of the Trucost report.