/ 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.

Sylvia O'Brien says:
15 June 2019

Wondrous, fresh produce from around the world is something I have taken for granted in the past but is turning into a luxury we can’t afford in environmental terms. As well as trying to reduce plastic packaging, the carbon footprint of our diet needs to be reduced. Both aspects of food supply need to be addressed.

‘it’s too easy to buy more than you need and discard what isn’t used.’

That’s true but a lot of waste can be avoided if you plan your shopping by making a list of what you want beforehand and stick to it.

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.

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.

How many people make compost these days, or have the garden to do so? Far better to make coffee in ways that don’t need packaging in this way, in my view.

Addressing our waste problem is more about reducing the amount of stuff we have to throw away, like excessive or unnecessary packaging, than about how to handle the mountains we continue to produce, whether it can be recycled or not..

Coffee pod machines make better coffee than filter coffee, cafetieres, etc. because they use hot water at high pressure. Maybe not as good as conventional pressure machines but cheaper to buy, and easier to use and keep clean. Compostable capsules/pods are an improvement but the best answer is to have refillable capsules. Until then I will stick to filter coffee and use the pressure machine occasionally.

Sylvia O'Brien says:
15 June 2019

You have got right to the heart of the matter, Malcolm. I completely agree with what you have said here.

We often buy dips, coleslaw and cold meats that can come in containers with nothing more than a plastic film instead of a lid like this:
If the product is going to get eaten in one go, it is not a problem, but when it can be open for several days, it needs to be covered. So you either transfer the food into another lidded container (can be wasteful) or cover it with cling film sending 2 lots of plastic film to landfill (very wasteful).

Food manufacturers need to use containers that are resealable and recyclable.

alfa, it is worth buying just a few permanent resealable containers to deal with this. Then the minimum plastic needs to be used and thrown out.

We had two delicious fruit tartlets yesterday – pastry shell, creme patisserie and fresh fruits on top. They were rather delicate, so came in a black plastic moulded tray with a clear plastic moulded cover. In view of the Convos – including mine – I did wonder how else they could have been protected, both in getting to the shop and then to my plate without damage. Any ideas? In this case, I’d probably stick with PET which seems totally recyclable into more useful packaging.

It’s worth thinking about whether potentially recycled materials such as paper and some plastics are recycled if they are contaminated with food. Buy a sandwich and the mayonnaise etc will contaminate the packet, meaning that it is put in the non-recyclable waste or the it contaminates the content of the recycling bin.

It would be interesting to know how contamination with food affects recyclability of plastics.

We do transfer some things, but there is not a lot of spare room in our fridge for larger containers.

Delicate items packed into larger packs will get a certain amount of protection. When you take them off the shelf, you will probably go the extra lengths required to get them home in one piece. But when you buy them online and they get chucked in a carrier bag or box, they often don’t resemble their original state.

I think plastics get washed as the first stage of recycling.

Your photo above looks as if as if it had been handled roughly during delivery. 🙁 Some items on sale are fragile and one of the reasons that manufacturers ‘overpackage’ them is to minimise damage.

Food or grease residue seems to be a problem. We stick recyclable containers in the dishwasher – along with regular crockery – so they do to the bin clean. However, what happens then when they are mixed with other peoples dirty stuff? Perhaps a washing process is, or should be, an essential part of the recycling operation.

It’s worth watching what others put in recycling bins. Some wash containers carefully with soapy water or put them in the dishwasher, and others put in jars and cans that are contaminated with food. One of the charities I’m involved with was given a set of bins by the council and I’ve watched people put half cans of cola in the recycling bin. Others put in bags of dog muck. The council eventually removed the bins.

I put recyclable plastic containers in the dishwasher and they get reused to freeze homemade soup or used to store screws etc. in the garage. Reuse is a better option than recycling.

But there is a limit to how much soup you can freeze and how many screws you can store. I’ve a stash of rectangular tins that once held extra strong mints. Looking for a use.

I make my own soup and polypropylene soup containers can be used quite a few times for storing portions in the freezer. If I buy soup it’s usually when it’s half price or less and I can use it promptly, which provides the containers, but rarely do I have a surplus. The odd one gets used to clean paint brushes.

I used to freeze soup and other home-cooked food in small Pyrex bowls/basins with plastic lids. Many have told me that glass will crack in the freezer but it does not if the container has sloping sides. Unfortunately the lids failed after years of use and I cannot find replacements. That’s why I now use soup containers.

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon with the accidental creation of a bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic at a waste dump in Japan, and which has been improved by scientists in the form of a mutant enzyme. There is still a long way to go but enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable, can be produced in large numbers by microorganisms and can be recycled.

The full very interesting report can be found @ theguardian.com – Scientists Accidentally Create Mutant Enzyme That Eats Plastic

Thanks Beryl. The Guardian usually does better at reporting science. One thing we can be sure of is that a successful process for using bacteria to break down plastics will take years to develop. Even if it does become practical, it’s not a substitute for reusing them, cutting down consumption and having organised recycling.

The widespread pollution has now reached a stage where it will also probably take years to resolve if media reporting is to be believed Wavechange. I agree, a general concerted effort by all is required for any sustained improvement to be established.

mariannepsteele says:
4 May 2018

Some plastic containers are recyclable and some are not. All manufacturers should clearly mark those that are as they do in Germany.

Manufacturers should show the ‘resin identification code’ in a triangle. From Wikipedia:

The problem in the UK is that not all councils accept the same plastics in recycling bins. That results in the wrong plastics being put int he bins and lowers the value of the waste. The obvious answer is for the government to require all councils to recycle the same plastics. It would be useful to standardise on the colour of waste bins at the same time.

I suspect most plastics that are throw out are from packaging. It would be good if the number of types and colours were minimised to make separation and recycling as simple as possible and to ban non-recyclable materials. There should be a national policy, not one decided by a local authority.

Asda seem to do as much as they can to use the most plastic possible with many products. I popped around to a friends house at the weekend to spot a whole chicken with a hard plastic top & bottom on it – 3 or 4 sizes to big for the chicken it contained. 🙁

A problem with raw chicken is that it can be heavily contaminated with campylobacter. If meat juices come into contact with cooked food or food that is eaten raw (e.g. salads) this can cause food poisoning. Plastics are probably the best way of dealing with this problem, but maybe Asda are using more than necessary. It would be good to establish best practice and instruct manufacturers to follow it.

This Conversation is about plastic packaging but it’s worth thinking about ways that our environment is being contaminated with plastics. I was dismayed to see rolls of artificial grass on sale in supermarkets, a sure way of increasing the sales of products. With age, artificial turf will release fragments of plastic and I very much doubt if it will be recycled when it is old and contaminated with soil.

we do not need to make a fuss about stop using polystyrene products, they are totally recyclable and we suggest that all of us should raise our awareness of recycling eps wastes, with the help of greenmax compactors, they have solutions to dispose of waste polystyrene, a polystyrene recycling machine can help you deal with the polystyrene foam container. The waste foam can be crushed and compacted into dense EPS

I think we do need to make a fuss, because a great deal of plastic is not recycled. I’m pleased to see that some companies are using protective packaging based on cardboard. That is recyclable and if it does get into our rivers and oceans it is less of a problem.

That’s the last straw, Oscar – well up to the standard of the cauliflower steak from last year. Perhaps Starbucks product designers need to be sent of an environmental awareness staff development workshop, or something like that.

If we must have straws (I never use them) then they will need protecting in transit and storage at least for reasons of hygiene. It will depend upon what the packaging material is. However, until someone makes a start on regulating packaging it will carry on like this.

I doubt a “product designer” was involved.

Are the straws shown flavored ones that containing some actual foodstuff, i.e. not just drinking straws?

I have vague recollection of buying similar items from a supermarket once, but they didn’t seem very good, so we never bought them again.

Personally, I never go to Starbucks for anything, except where it’s the least worst option and a grateful employer will be paying the costs back as expenses.

Yes; I think they’re edible straws. Or at least suckable.

Nowadays some people use algae as packaging and was inted not so long ago.

Here is an article on the subject: https://www.greenbiz.com/article/edible-packaging-will-make-you-reconsider-seaweed

Many of us are using food waste bags made from corn starch and packaging made from algae could become another popular and genuinely biodegradable and compostable material.

The problem is that using genuinely biodegradable and compostable materials in combination with other materials can make them more resistant to breakdown in the natural environment.
This is reflected in this article: “These materials are biodegradable, to varying degrees.”

Paper is biodegradable but treat paper with wax to make a waterproof cup and the cup will be much more resistant to degradation. I don’t see how algae will solve that problem.

About time someone started it. What happened to the shopping bag the customer used to carry? There are some “fold-ups” that can go in a pocket.
All fruit/veg could be sold loose, weighed up and pit into the brown paper bags we used to have hanging by the racks.

My nearest supermarket is Morrisons, and I was pleased see that that the plastic bags for loose fruit & veg have been replaced with paper ones:

Unfortunately there is some way to go with pre-packaged goods and I would love to know why supermarkets are so fond of putting bananas in plastic bags:

According to the chap at the customer service desk, there have been many complaints about bananas in plastic bags. Should I feel reassured?

Customers have a bad habit of wanting 3/4 out of a bunch of 5 bananas so rip off what they don’t want often damaging them in the process.

I only buy one or 2 bananas at a time so usually have plenty of loose ones to choose from but there are always plenty of damaged ones.

The dilemma is:
♦️ sell them loose = food waste.
♦️ sell them in plastic bags = single use plastic
♦️ sell in alternate packaging = more expensive plus resources needed for production.

On balance, the food waste is probably the cheapest sustainable option.

I frequently break off a couple of under-ripe bananas from the loose ones on sale without causing any damage. No packaging needed. The food waste with bananas is they over-ripen while your back is turned, but at least they will compost or contribute to banana cake.

When the world is changing to recyclable packaging why has Sainsburys moved from glass to plastic bottles for their Distilled Malt Vinegar?

Most plastic bottles can be recycled. I put all my empty ones in my recycling bin.

Replacing heavy glass bottles by lighter plastic ones can also reduce the CO2 emissions associated with transporting goods from manufacturers to shops.