There are legitimate concerns from consumers over the use of plastic in food packaging. Are they getting all the information?

Having seemingly reached the peak of post-Blue Planet II anti-plastic outrage globally, there have been some interesting calm and considered observations of late. With the storm having settled to some degree, voices have been heard suggesting that plastic might not be the super villain that all other materials have to come together, Avengers style, to defeat. And these are not just voices from the packaging industry either.

In the U.K. and following Morrison’s announcement that it was returning to paper bags, an Environment Agency study showed that paper carrier bags, across their lifecycle of production, use and disposal, had a greater global-warming impact than plastic ones. The supermarket said it was aware but that its customers believed plastic pollution was of paramount importance. This begs the question; where are those customers getting their information from?

Preventing food waste
Plastic currently plays a significant role in food packaging and helps to combat another environmental concern, that of food waste. It’s probably fair to say that CO2 emissions would have less on-screen emotional impact than the scenes involving plastic and marine life in Blue Planet II but it wasn’t so long ago that supermarkets were the targets of TV documentaries highlighting the problem of food waste.

“If global food waste was a country, it would be the third largest carbon emitter in the world behind the US and China but there’s a real danger that food waste reduction in the developed world could be a victim of plastics reduction,” says The Packaging Federation chief executive Dick Searle. “There’s no doubt that plastics packaging has widened the choice and shelf life of a whole range of foods and it’s vital that food shelf-life and hygiene are not compromised in the race to find alternatives.

Until the last few months and the recent anti-plastic campaign, food waste was the primary concern. Food waste is probably a more important environmental and humanitarian concern than plastic. It is responsible for huge waste of energy, land and water as well as wasted human and animal resources and efforts.

Plastic packaging is generally used because it decreases food waste. In many ways, plastic is ideal for this application. It is light and thin, strong, easy to process and transparent. It is very effective for extending shelf life and maintaining food quality during storage and transportation. Decades of dedicated research and development has resulted in sophisticated plastic structures which are perfect for packaging perishable foods.”

The reduction in plastics usage could exacerbate the issue of food waste if it is not managed well. It would be a shame if a slavish effort to reduce the use of plastics in food packaging resulted in an increase of food waste. This is unfortunately where we are heading now. The answer is to balance the argument by looking at the overall environmental impact of the food and the packaging. In some cases, plastic may provide the best results.

The disposal of plastic is a key but slightly separate issue. If people insist on throwing it in the sea then it does make sense to get rid of it. I would hope that sensible recycling, composting, incineration and other disposal mechanisms will prevent this.

Why plastic?
A recent investigation focused on the supermarkets with the highest and lowest amount of recyclable plastic packaging. In the scramble for position, nobody picked up on the part of the report where, in answer to the question ‘Why do supermarkets use plastic?’, Which? stated: “Plastic food packaging serves a number of important purposes – it helps protect food from damage, it makes food more visually appealing for consumers and it helps it last longer. And these are important factors. Food has a significantly higher carbon footprint than the packaging it comes in. Experts say food waste generally produces three times as much carbon as packaging waste.”

Of course, if a material can be used that was not harmful to marine life (should we not be able to prevent it from getting into the ocean) and also extended the life of food, it would be foolish not to explore that avenue.

While the need to eliminate plastic from packaging completely might be knee-jerk and counter-productive there are food types for which plastic-free packaging would not be detrimental. For example, some frozen food has a very long shelf life simply because it is frozen. The packaging does not need to provide an oxygen or moisture barrier. Plastic can be replaced with paper (with a natural heat-seal layer perhaps) or by a compostable bio-polymer.

It is more difficult to replace plastic in some of the more demanding applications. For example, long shelf-life vacuum packaging for red meat requires a very high oxygen barrier packaging material. This is easily achieved with multi-layer plastics but rather more difficult for natural bio-polymers or papers.

Similarly, skin packaging, formable packaging, high barrier MAP packaging and a few other demanding packaging formats are rather difficult to replace with non-plastic alternatives. There are some materials under development and we shall see alternatives appearing over time.

However, these new materials are generally more expensive than the plastic that they purport to replace. If this was not the case, we would be using them already of course. Furthermore, the food industry (and the packaging industry which supplies it) is heavily invested in machinery which is designed to process plastic packaging at high speed. There is a cost and some inertia which will inhibit the speed of change.

Opinion is that plastic packs still have a place, but that alternatives to plastic will play an increasing role in food packaging going forward.

“Fully biodegradable and microplastic free packaging is the most sustainable solution to save this planet from the plastic waste” says Sulapac CEO, Suvi Haimi. “The challenge I see is that we have to clarify to consumers what a truly sustainable choice is. We need a clear definition for materials, what is microplastic free and what not, and a very simple way to explain to everybody what recycling streams should be used for these material groups.”

Indeed, there is willingness in abundance throughout the industry to combat both food and packaging waste, with plastic still playing a role while diminishing in volume, therefore attempting to tackle several environmental issues regardless which, is making the most current headlines.

Extracted from article by:

Tony Corbin –  Packaging News, published 8th Augusts 2018

By |2018-09-25T09:57:28+00:00September 23rd, 2018|