The Packaging Crisis

The packaging crisis

 Have a look in your rubbish and recycling bin at the end of the week – and unless you are very careful in your purchasing habits, a large proportion of what you will see is likely to be food packaging.   Plastics, tins, foil, glass and paper are all used extensively in the food industry – with over a third of all packaging being plastics derived from fossil fuels.

Plastics are extraordinary materials and it’s not surprising that they are used so extensively in food packaging.  They are cheap and plentiful, lightweight yet robust, can be manufactured in any colour or made transparent.  They also provide an excellent seal against contamination.   It would be hard to imagine a better material in which to store and transport our food.  Except, of course, one.  Once made, they are extremely difficult to unmake.

And despite our best intentions of ensuring anything marked with a recycle sign going into the recycling bin – at best perhaps between 10 and 20% of plastics are ever recycled.  Historically, for western nations, much of these materials have been shipped overseas – frequently to be dumped in landfills in countries that can least afford the health and environmental risks caused by taking our rubbish. 

As plastics do not naturally decompose, some of those plastics we use and dispose of today will be with us for centuries to come.   While much of it is buried in landfill, alarmingly huge quantities find their way into our environment – estimates suggest somewhere between 5 and 13 million tonnes enter the ocean every year and recent research suggests there are at least 14 million tonnes of plastic fragments (microplastics) on the sea bed.  And of course, once in the oceans these plastics have devastating consequences.  It’s not just distressing images of turtles choking and dying from eating plastic bags we need to be aware of.  Microplastics are now found in every part of the oceanic ecosystem – where research suggest they are now found in 50% of all fish.  Once ingested, they can reduce fish fertility as well as causing a myriad of other health issues for all animals in the food chain.   And that, of course, includes us.  If you eat fish, wild caught or farmed, you are almost certainly consuming microplastics.   The long-term effects on human health are not yet fully understood, but recent research has suggested a link between microplastics and reductions in male fertility.

But given their ubiquity and incredible functionality, how on earth can we possibly wean ourselves off plastics?  

There are obviously steps we can take as individuals to reduce our plastic footprint – including choosing products that minimise packaging and understanding which forms of packaging are likely to be recycled rather than go into landfill.   Using “keep cups” rather than disposable cups and avoiding plastic based takeaway containers are also easy changes to make.   Many products are also now available in non-plastic forms, such as re-usable bags for fruit and veg, toothbrushes and more. 

Can we also improve our record on recycling?

Innovative recycling companies such as Terracycle are leading the way in providing opportunities to recycle and re-use far more of the waste stream, including many items that would previously have gone into landfill.  Terracycle is now active in 20 countries and can recycle many items, such as bubble wrap and single use latex gloves that would never otherwise be recycled.

This is a great achievement– but despite all the materials recycled through the Terracycle initiative, it is still currently only a drop of plastic in the ocean.

One of the problems with plastics is that even if you do manage to recycle them, the quality of the recycled plastic is never as good as the original – so rather than the dream of a “closed loop” system where plastics simply get recycled time and again, the best we can hope for is that the recycled product is used in a durable form – such as building materials, fence posts or park benches where at least it is not contributing to the waste stream.  Many recycled plastics are converted into clothes – which sounds great, except clothes, when washed, are also one of the biggest sources of microplastics in our waterways and oceans.  Furthermore, once discarded, these clothes will almost certainly not be recycled again.

So – in short, recycling of plastics does not seem like it can ever reach the level of sustainability where it is no longer contributing to environmental degradation.

Re-using packaging is a much better option and uses far less energy and resources.  Here again, it is Terracycle that is leading the way.   Through their Loop initiative, manufacturers can use packaging that will eventually be returned and cleaned to be re-filled time and again.    This requires the cooperation of distributors and retailers – pilot schemes are now running in the US, Canada, Germany and France.  Here in Australia, Terracycle is partnering with Woolworths to introduce the ‘Loop’ initiative. 

But changing consumer and corporate behaviour on the scale needed to make a real difference is a huge challenge and requires massive international effort.  So it is encouraging that many NGOs and corporations have joined forces to call for a UN treaty on plastic pollution.  That would be a fantastic achievement but could only succeed if we develop technical solutions to some of the big problems – such as the recyclability or compostability of current plastics.

So, one idea, currently being explored, is to create plastics, that when recycled, are just as good as the original material. If realised (and assuming we could ensure these items do get recycled), it could mean that we can put our plastics in our recycling bin, confident that these items will be sorted, re-processed and re-used for packaging time and time again.

Another line of research, and one that has already created many products, is to manufacture plastics from plant materials such as corn starch, rather than fossil fuels.   These have the advantage of decomposing much faster than fossil-fuel based plastics and are now used extensively for “single use” plastics – such as plastic cutlery and takeaway food containers.  However, they are not yet robust enough for retail food packaging which needs to keep food fresh for days or weeks.    The exciting news is that there is a host of research being undertaken on new biomaterials that can replace traditional plastics.   Shellfish, seaweed, wood and the materials used in insect skeletons (chitin) are all being researched as potential raw materials for plastic replacements.   Of course, using a different natural resource to create plastics may generate its own set of problems which need to be explored.

At Food 4 Tomorrow, we think all these initiatives are worthwhile.   And it’s not just plastics that need our attention.   Other materials used in food packaging – such as metal, cardboard and glass are a long way from sustainable.

We will be reporting further on all these ideas – and partnering with international organisations to make sure we all have the information we need to make the right choices.