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Lifting the Lid on Plastic: Food for thought on tackling food waste

Insight / Value Plastic

Try to imagine 200 million elephants. Or 900 million compact cars. That is the equivalent weight of food lost or wasted each year. 

The startling 1.3 billion tonnes of loss or waste is roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Another example of food wastage is how only 25 potatoes are actually eaten from every 100 harvested. This was recently revealed by Marcus Gover, Chief Executive Officer of WRAP, the organisation that works to deliver practical solutions to improve resource efficiency.

A major contributory factor to this wastage is that food quality and freshness is not maintained due to poor packaging and unsuitable transportation. However, the good news is that innovative and sustainable usage of plastic can provide a solution.

For example, an FAO guide advises that the adoption of reusable plastic crates has contributed significantly to maintaining quality and reducing losses in the area of post-harvest handling and transportation of fresh produce; particularly in Asia and the Pacific.

Range of benefits

Plastic packaging also has a strong role to play in preventing wastage by protecting food and extending shelf life. An example here is how vacuum-sealed plastic packaging can double the amount of time meat stays fresh.

Of course, a flip side is some practices can increase wastefulness of both food and packaging. For instance, some suggest that multi-packs contribute to food being oversupplied and undervalued.

Nonetheless, plastic brings a range of benefits through the food supply chain. As well as extending shelf life, the benefits include:

  • Durability - Strong plastic is extremely durable and reusable.
  • Eliminating contamination - Food is protected from physical or airborne contamination. As well as protecting us from food poisoning, eliminating contamination results in less impact on the NHS.
  • Energy saving - Fewer resources and less energy are required in the production and transport of plastics due to their lighter weight compared to alternatives such as glass or metal. Also, products that can be packaged for cupboard storage don’t require refrigeration.
  • Recyclable - Plastic takes up less energy to recycle compared to other materials such as glass. Plastic bags are particularly easy to recycle and reform into other plastic items. Although the simplest way to recycle plastic bags is to reuse them. 
  • Safety and hygiene - Plastics can provide a barrier to oxygen, light, moisture, dust, odours, and microbes.
  • Versatility - There is virtually no limit on the shapes that can be moulded from plastic.

In reference to recycling, Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey recently stated that the drinks giant is “committed to collecting and recycling plastic bottles rather than switching to aluminium cans”. 

It is part of the company's participation in the “Every Bottle Back” initiative, which also includes Keurig Dr Pepper and PepsiCo.

Plastic bottles made to be remade

Launched in October last year, the initiative’s main message is: “Our plastic bottles are made to be remade. We are carefully designing them to be 100% recyclable – even the caps. Our goal is for every bottle to become a new bottle, and not end up in oceans, rivers, beaches and landfills. And that means we are using less new plastic.”

James Quincey added: “A recycled PET [polyethylene terephthalate] bottle has a much lower carbon footprint than an aluminium can or a returned glass bottle.” 

The Every Bottle Back initiative and others are spreading the word that plastic is a good reusable material and not a waste product.

And a “Plastics and Sustainability” study by Trucost has found the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than if alternative materials were used. 

The research company’s findings were due to strong, lightweight plastics allowing more to be done with less material, which provides environmental benefits.

Innovative recycling technology

Another example of reducing the usage of new plastic in the food and drink industries is the increasing uptake of sealed lidding film as a replacement for rigid clip-on lids, as seen in many of our export markets for fresh produce.  

Our own range includes an innovative resealing film called K Reseal that can be opened and reclosed multiple times. The transparent lid is also printable, reducing the need for additional external packaging.

However, this raises another issue surrounding the conflict between reduction, recycling, and functionality. Existing mechanical recycling processes are not keeping up with the advances of innovation in plastic engineering. So an engineered solution can result in less usage of plastic or ensure optimum food protection or preservation. But it may not currently be recyclable due to the technical limitations such as requiring simple material, for example one polymer. 

Fortunately, every day, there are new stories from the battlefront of the war on plastic waste.  For example, at the time of writing this article, BP revealed an innovative enhanced recycling technology capable of processing plastic waste which currently goes unrecycled.

BP plans to construct a $25 million pilot plant in the US to prove the technology, before progressing to full-scale operations.

Called BP Infinia, it offers the potential to divert billions of difficult-to-recycle coloured bottles and food trays from landfill and incineration.

Accelerating the transition to a circular economy

There are also other new initiatives such as Recycling Technologies’ usage of a chemical recycling technique to process plastic waste that would otherwise go to landfill or incineration. And DOW is making inroads with closing the loop on recycling flexible plastic packaging.

A great deal of innovative and forward-thinking technology is being developed to work alongside traditional mechanical recycling in dealing with “hard to recycle” plastics.

For example, the BBC has reported that new "invisible barcode" technology is being piloted which aims to fix the problem of certain kinds of material, including plastics, not being recognised by machines in sorting plants. This will help avoid the problem of unrecognised material being sent to landfill rather than being recycled.

That trial includes a consortium of top brands such as Nestle, PepsiCo, and Procter & Gamble. It is being led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity with the aim to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, based on designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

All of the effort and innovations are geared towards ensuring maximum benefit is gained from the efficient usage of plastic, with waste being a valuable reusable resource. This is especially important as we tackle in parallel the arguably bigger issue of climate change.
 
In the next item in our “Lifting the Lid on Plastic” series, we will delve deeper into the initiatives that surround plastics reuse, recycling, and reduction of waste. 

We will also look at some of the alternatives to plastic. And explore how supermarkets are responding to help tackle that issue of 200 million elephants in the room.

 

Missed Part 1?  Plastic was once hailed as the greatest thing since sliced bread. It was seen as the miracle product that transformed modern living more than any other invention.

Today, the headlines have a different focus.

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