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Seriously, do we really need cucumbers wrapped in plastic?

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Bags for vegetables, bags for fruit, bags for bread, cling-wrap for meat and even plastic bags for organic food; it’s always surprising the quantity of plastic packaging we bring back from the shops. Do we really need all this plastic? Isn’t it an enormous waste of resources that stuffs our bins for no real purpose? Plastics make up a considerable quantity of our waste, after all - 24.7 million tonnesi in Europe in fact. So the issue of plastic packaging is an interesting one, as it touches on a lot of topics relevant to the way we live. Let’s look at a few.

Do we really need packaging?

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The short answer to this is – obviously – yes. But why? Although packaging is also used for marketing purposes, its foremost role is to protect goods during transport and in particular preserve the freshness of food. In the broader picture, this is essential.

Keeping food fresh is important for two main reasons. On the one hand, fresh food brings us vital vitamins. And the fresher it is, the more vitamins we get. Supermarkets and producers invest a lot of time and money in preserving the so-called ‘cold chain*’, so that we can buy food that is tastier and more healthy. The right packaging extends its useful shelf life.

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Keeping food fresh is important for two main reasons. On the one hand, fresh food brings us vital vitamins. And the fresher it is, the more vitamins we get. Supermarkets and producers invest a lot of time and money in preserving the so-called ‘cold chain*’, so that we can buy food that is tastier and more healthy. The right packaging extends its useful shelf life.

The other main reason to preserve food is to cut down on waste. It has been estimated that up to 40-50% of the food we produce as a society is never actually eaten. Some of this is due to loss or spoilage during production or distribution. But by far the greatest amount is lost after we purchase it. Just think of the quantity of bananas or apples we throw out each year as when they are no longer fresh.

But why plastics as packaging?

The arguments for plastic as a packaging material are quite simple. Plastic is very effective at protecting material. It can be adapted to dry goods, fresh food, heavy items and extremely fragile ones. It helps the food arrive in the shops in good condition – and fresh! It also helps protect it as we bring it home, and store it.
Over time, we have become better at reducing the quantity of packaging we use. Ten years ago, packaging weighed 28% more than todayii . Now only an average of 1-3% of a packaged product’s weight is due to the packaging
Plastics also help increase sustainability:

  • Over its lifetime, a cucumber needs 375 liters of potable water (growing, washing, transportation etc.); the plastic wrapping uses roughly 0.02 liters iii
  • Cucumbers that are wrapped stay fresh for up to 14 days, as opposed to 3-7 unwrapped. New “breathable” membranes promise freshness for up to 40 days iv.
  • On average, the footprint of plastic packaging compared to that of the food it protects is a fraction of 1%. The CO2 emissions produced when growing a cucumber, for example (incl. transportation, washing etc.) are roughly 4,500g; the 5g of plastic sheeting that protects them generates roughly 10g of CO2 v.
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Are there alternatives to plastic?

Sure: metal, paper, wood and ceramic all do a great job in protecting food. But the cost of transporting them is far greater, notably due to the increased weight (on average 3.6 times more than plastic) which leads to more fuel costs and CO2 emissions. A recent study suggested that if Europe switched to other forms of packaging, we would be using up to 27 million tonnes more oil than now and carbon emissions could increase by the equivalent of some 21 million cars)vi

Tomorrow’s plastic packaging

The rational use of resources (oil) is definitely something that we can improve. One way is by lowering the weight of plastic packaging. To do this, we have to increase its strength, something the industry is working on very actively. It is also continuing research into alternative plastics from other resources such as bioplastics.
Nonetheless, improvements can still be made in the recovery, re-use and/or recycling or incineration of plastic after we have used it. As local authorities deal with waste in different ways, there is no one answer for the recycling and re-use of plastics. Some already recycle a lot. Others are beginning to look at plastic waste as a resource. But it’s important to always remember that plastic packaging can be recycled and re-used and that everyone – industry, authorities and consumers - have an important role to play.

A parting thought…

Here is something worth thinking about: plastics are oil-based. At the very least, should we not be recovering them and using them to generate energy in combustion? Some 58% of plastic is recovered in EU Member Statesvii, of which 24% is recycled and 34% is burnt to generate energy. Given the current energy needs, isn’t plastic simply too valuable to throw away?
Yet initiatives of this nature require the active participation of everyone - industry, local authorities and each of us at home and at work. The simple act of sorting our waste will ultimately enable us to use these resources more carefully and make a positive change to the way we live.

*cold chain: is a common term for the continuous maintenance of low temperature required for sensitive products such as food and pharmaceuticals —from the time of manufacture to shipping, warehousing, and storing.

References

i Plastics – The Facts 2011, PlasticsEurope
ii http://www.federplast.be/
iii numbers based on LCA data
iv Shelf-life of cucumbers http: //www.packagingnews.co.uk/
v numbers based on LCA data
vi numbers based on LCA data
vii Denkstatt study by PlasticsEurope “Plastics – The Facts 2011”, PlasticsEurope