The food industry must take greater responsibility for single-use plastics

The oceans are choked with plastic, and food packaging is one of the main culprits. But will our modern diet allow us to consider alternatives?

“Brits are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more.” This was Greenpeace campaigner Elena Polisano summing up the shifting mood towards the plastic pollution crisis. But two weeks ago, investigators discovered plastic packaging from UK recycling bins illegally dumped across Malaysia, with remains from familiar supermarket brands strewn across three acres. Recycling clearly isn’t enough; there must be a wholesale change when it comes to food packaging.

According to a report by Friends of the Earth and Zero Waste Europe, the continent’s demand for plastic has reached a high of 49 million tonnes a year, of which 40 per cent is packaging. But Which? revealed that 29 per cent of plastic found in UK shops is either difficult or impossible to recycle, creating masses of waste.

Campaigners don’t believe fighting plastic pollution will have an impact on the foods we eat, only what we bring them home in. Julian Kirby, plastics campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says: “The ultimate solution to the plastic pollution crisis lies in big, systemic changes and a reimagining of what’s actually needed when it comes to packaging. However ditching plastic doesn’t need to change what we actually see on the shelves of our shops.”

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Packaging created for oil-based foodstuffs and made of caramelised sugar coated with wax. Crack it like an egg to open it, and the package will magically melt away when it comes into contact with water

A modest cutback in single-use plastics has proved most convenient to implement on a consumer level, with plastic bag levy introduced across the UK (leading to an 86 per cent drop in single-use carrier bags) and an uptick in reusable water bottles and coffee cups. It is not enough. UN Environment Programme executive director Achim Steiner said that 20 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans each year. He adds: “There are no quick fixes, and a more responsible approach to managing the lifecycle of plastics will be needed to reduce their impacts on our ecosystems.”

But food packagers agree there’s nothing quite like plastic. Crucially, it’s lightweight. Nearly a million plastic water bottles are sold globally every minute, but transporting drinks in heavier, more sustainable materials requires 40 per cent more energy. This means an increase in harmful carbon dioxide polluting our environment which, in the wake of the IPCC report signalling that we have 12 years to curb climate change or we’re doomed, is bad news.

However the need for plastic packaging alternatives made way for an environmental boom in design innovation. Think food encased in wax which can be peeled away like a skin; water delivered in edible capsules made from seaweed membranes; smart packaging, using labels which change colour according to the ripeness of fruit; loose produce which isn’t labelled at all, with lasers used to mark avocados by Marks & Spencer since last year; and food sold in its own modified atmosphere, kept fresh not by its container but by the air within it. Earlier this year, 40 companies including Coca-Cola and Asda signed up to the UK Plastics Pact, pledging to cut plastics within seven years by designing better product components.

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An idea that goes against the grain? Basmati rice is wrapped in a pyramid of soft beeswax and printed with soy ink. Peel it open like an orange and your curry night conscience is clear

Swedish design house Tomorrow Machine is one company thinking up solutions. Driven by a passion for sustainability, Hanna Billqvist and Anna Glansén created packaging that breaks down as the food it carries does. For example, they ask why it’s acceptable that a milk carton takes years to break down when its designed to carry a liquid that spoils in a week.

They have designed packaging for smoothies made from seaweed and water that decomposes at the same rate as its contents, rice packets made of biodegradable wax that peels like fruit and a container for oil made of caramelised sugar, coated with wax, which melts within minutes after contact with water. None of these are as yet commercially available but they could be in our supermarkets in future.

Meanwhile, the British Plastics Federation (BPF) has other ideas. They don’t believe removing plastic food packaging is the answer, and that it “has an important part to play in modern life”, particularly where safety and hygiene are concerned. They add: “For example, a plastic water bottle allows hygienic access to clean drinking water and is less resource-intensive to produce than alternative materials.”

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Just agar-agar seaweed gel and water make up this perishable packaging. Keep it in the fridge – the packet will wither at the same rate as its contents and so is perfect for liquids and drinks that have a short life span

The BPF pointed out that alternative materials need twice as much energy as plastic to be produced. It’s also more expensive for producers and retailers, meaning we can expect to see a rise in food prices beyond that caused by inflation.

In reality, we’re likely to see a return to former shopping habits: food sold in no packaging at all, with little exception. Social enterprises like Bulk Market in London, where customers bring their own containers and take home the exact amount they need, are springing up at an increasing rate. They’re proponents of the circular economy model, which aims to get as much use out of resources for as long as they can – a far cry from the linear economy which created a monster out of single-use plastics.

A Greenpeace survey showed that nine out of 10 people are concerned about the devastation wreaked on our oceans by plastic. It remains to be seen if that concern will push consumers to make difficult changes en-masse and, importantly, if they can push corporations to embrace sustainable solutions.

Images: Anna Glansen/Tomorrow Machine