/ Food & Drink

How can we rethink packaging to win the war on plastic?

plastic food packaging

The fight against plastic and food waste can’t be won unless we find viable alternatives. Step forward smart packaging, which can keep food fresh for longer and is more environmentally friendly. Our guest, Simon Lee, founder of food freshness technology company It’s Fresh!, explains how it works…

With increased scrutiny on packaging and waste in food production and consumption, it is no wonder that discussions within the Which? Community and beyond are questioning the necessity and carbon footprint of the packaging that stores so much of the fresh produce we consume.

We love to eat food from all over the world, and with this comes the need for it to stay fresher for longer. It needs to withstand long journeys that sometimes take several weeks, as well as the time spent on supermarket and fridge shelves.

There is no silver bullet for reducing food wastage and packaging can play a vital part when used in smart ways. Real change relies on industry-wide backing of innovative technologies as well as better education and greater responsibility for the produce we consume.

A key part of fresh produce waste is caused by natural ripening and spoilage in the supply chain, accelerated by ‘ethylene’ – the ripening hormone released by fruits and vegetables. This stimulates other fresh produce nearby to ripen as well, starting a chain reaction.

Creating packaging that controls the environment of produce is therefore vital in preserving our food for longer.

Smart packaging

The need to develop technologies to tackle this is being helped by a growing tide of ‘smart packaging’.

One example is the discrete paper-like filter we developed at It’s Fresh!, and used by the supermarket chain Morrisons. It is placed inside the packaging of fruit and veg, and absorbs the ethylene that is released. This slows down the ripening process naturally, extending quality and freshness, enabling the produce to last a little longer and travel further without compromise.

Another is Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) – packaging that creates a controlled environment for perishable products such as meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, by carefully regulating the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the pack. This extends shelf life without adding chemical preservatives and inhibits the growth of bacteria. It demonstrates the difference packaging can make in reducing waste throughout the supply chain.

Bio-based plastic alternatives are also gaining media and industry traction, with large companies keen to explore greener packaging options. In 2017, Ikea announced it was exploring the use of a fungus-based biodegradable packaging – which has been found to biodegrade within weeks – as an alternative to polystyrene.

Reuse or lose

Recycling is also something of an issue for many of us, and the recycling infrastructure in the UK varies hugely across councils.

Government plans to introduce a plastic bottle deposit scheme could help British consumers take more responsibility for their recyclable packaging. Similar schemes have already proved successful in other countries, especially in Sweden, where more than 90% of household waste is recycled.

As was written recently in The Grocer: ‘It’s all very well declaring a war on plastic, but unless we can find viable alternatives, the war will only end in defeat.’

Ultimately, increased use of packaging innovations, such as those mentioned, coupled with a robust closed-loop system of recycling, should be the goal; and just to be clear, nothing is truly recycled until it is reused.

This is a guest post by Simon Lee. All views expressed here are Simon’s own and not necessarily those also shared by Which?.

Would you like to see more retailers adopt smart packaging or have you seen or heard about new innovations in packaging? Is it something you’d be happy to pay more for?


I’m all for extending shelf life of fresh produce. What needs also to be addressed is to minimise the packaging and to use a minimal variety of materials that can be easily recycled. There’s a recent Convo about this.Hopefully we might see more home grown produce that does not have to travel half way round the world to get to us. That would require a change in habit, to use seasonal food for example and not expect asparagus and strawberries all year round. But I doubt we’ll reverse that.

Simon Lee says:
1 May 2018

Yes you are right Malcolm, we have to try to minimise the packaging used, in fact we have spent the past 3 years working on a way to add our patented consumer friendly ‘active ingredient’ directly onto the ‘top seal’ film that you see on most packaged fruit – that way we are using the existing substrates within the supply chain but making them smarter – it is launching later this year. As for your second point, it is true we have become spoilt with the huge variety of choice that we have come to enjoy and expect. As a child I remember going to the local greengrocer with my grandfather and buying the best of what was ‘in season’ and that taught me to respect fresh produce and to enjoy it while it lasted. Perhaps nowadays because it is so easily available 365 days a year, it’s too easy to buy more than you need and discard what isn’t used. Having said that, the retail supply chain does an incredible job of introducing us to such wondrous fresh produce like avocados, kiwis, pineapples, bananas, mangoes and papayas that to my knowledge cant be successfully grown commercially in the UK – so for that, I am grateful.


Our local greengrocer – who we’ve used for upwards of 25 years – has recently refurbished their shop. Although they have rolls of polythene bags for the wetter offerings (cooked beetroot is one that springs to mind) they have brown paper bags that one tears off from a loop of thread through the corner, and for those who don’t bring their shopping bags there is a selection of used cardboard boxes and the occasional thin slatted shallow wooden crate. This model is pretty much unchanged since we first arrived in the village – and I would argue as green as any.


Simon mentions modified atmosphere packaging, which has been used for years to preserve the life of packaged meat. As soon as the plastic film is punctured, oxygen can enter and the bright red meat rapidly becomes brown. The problem is that for MAP to work the packaging must be gas-impermeable – in other words plastic is probably the only realistic choice.

I’m interested to know how the ethene (ethylene) is removed in the fruit & veg sold by Morrisons. I guess it’s simple adsorption of the gas produced by ripening of fruit on the surface of some material like a zeolite or charcoal with a large surface area.

I don’t know if school children learn about the impact of technology on the world around them.


Hi wavechange, The MAP that is used in fruit and vegetable packaging is not the ‘gas flush’ type as used in meats, it consists of highly technical gas permeable film substrates (of which there are many types), that alters the atmosphere according to the interaction between the product respiration rate and the transfer of gasses through the pack.

Your assumption regarding our technology is correct, our patented blend of consumer-friendly minerals and clay (zeolite), adsorbs the ethylene molecule and locks it away, thereby decreasing respiration rates, metabolic activity and microbial growth within the pack.

Education is key in helping us all to understand how to respect and treat our precious produce, from growing to global transportation to storage in the home.

Kevin says:
30 April 2018

I read in your magazine today about coffee, there was no mention about the environmental impact of coffee pods!!! Approx 200million are used in the UK…..and they csnnot be recycled


Hi Kevin 🙂 We have covered eco-friendly coffee pods and the effects coffee pods have on the environment. You can find it here: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/04/eden-project-launches-eco-friendly-nespresso-pods/



Thanks for this information Alex. If these coffee pods are compostable then it’s good news. I wonder if Which? has tested these pods to see if they are genuinely compostable. Home composting is not as effective as commercial composting.