Food waste remains a serious problem in Europe and in much of the world. So are plastic waste. But what if the use of plastic packaging could solve, or at least alleviate, the problem of food waste?
Keeping food fresh longer is supposed to be possible because plastic packaging can help consumers waste less food. But this is not so.
Food waste within the 28 nations of the European Union remains a serious problem. In fact, it has gotten worse. In the decade between 2004 and 2014, food waste per person doubled, even as the amount of plastic packaging in food products increased by as much as 50%.
In 2015 alone, the costs of food waste in the EU amounted to a staggering € 143 billion. That is equivalent to the operating budget of the economic group.
"Plastic packaging is often advertised as a means of preventing food waste, but it has not provided a comprehensive solution," the authors of a recent study explain. Unwrapped: How disposable plastic does not solve the problem of food waste in Europe.
"The growth in the application of plastic packaging has increased along with the growth in food waste, with a total demand for plastic in Europe of 49 million tonnes per year, of which 40% is used for packaging."
Although plastic packaging can keep food fresh longer, it also encourages environmentally damaging consumer behavior by enticing people to store more food, much of which goes to waste in the end.
To make matters worse, a large amount of packaging currently in use is difficult to recycle, thus ending up in landfills or in garbage on the streets.
And the problem will get worse before it gets better. By next year, people on the continent will likely consume more than 900 billion packaged food and beverage items each year, according to estimates. "Any packaging practices used by the food industry and retailers (eg multi-packs) are implemented to support economic efficiency and marketing and branding objectives rather than preserving food," the study authors argue.
“These practices can generate food waste throughout the value chain. For many products, zero or reusable packaging represents a viable and sustainable solution, and this is reflected in the growing number of retailers that focus on reducing the use of unsustainable packaging, ”they add.
Considering the scale of the problem, there are no easy solutions. However, a variety of measures would go a long way toward easing things off. Experts recommend that the EU set targets to reduce the amounts of single-use packaging while making more food packaging easily recyclable throughout the supply chain.
Among other measures, experts also recommend supporting zero waste initiatives and creating a right for customers across the EU to return any plastic packaging to the point of sale so that it can then be recycled more directly.