/ 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?

Comments
Member

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.

Member

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. 🙁

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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

Member

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.

Member
Member

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.