Plastic Packaging and Food Waste – new perspectives on a dual sustainability crisis

Newly published research carried out by IEEP for Zero Waste Europe and Friends of the Earth, as part of the Rethink Plastic Alliance, found that plastic packaging has diverse and complex impacts on food waste, and in some areas could be increasing waste. While packaging has many useful functions in the food chain, evidence suggests that packaging practices may be driven by brand and sales objectives rather than waste reduction. Examples of over packaging include strict retail grading standards resulting in wasted edible food, or multi-packs which may lead consumers to over purchase and waste food at home. Overall, high levels of packaging waste and the risks of plastic pollution associated with single-use plastic packaging also bring into question the merits of a historic trend towards increasingly packaging food in plastics.

Data used to inform packaging design, in particular LCA evidence, have emphasized the importance of light weighting in order to reduce emissions for example during transport. Arguably this has come at the cost of the reusability or recyclability of packaging. This suggests more research may be need to more comprehensively assess the environmental impacts of packaging.

Evidence suggests that the nature of supply chains are an important factor in determining the viability reusable packaging in particular. A growing number of initiatives, often facilitated by short food supply chains (SFSCs), such as package free retailers and farm box schemes, demonstrate the potential to use reusable packaging or remove the need for packaging completely for some products. However uncertainties exist about how such initiatives can be up-scaled as they remain at the margins.

The study and its policy recommendations hold relevance to the European Commission’s ongoing work on plastics, packaging waste, and food in general. Notably, the EU Strategy on Plastics in a Circular Economy published in January, and forthcoming measures on single use plastics as well as an expected Food Package Initiative.

A range of policies and instruments should be used to support reductions in food and packaging waste. Key actions for policymakers and stakeholders will be to:

  • Develop a holistic, evidence-based approach to the role of plastic packaging in the food system.
  • Review legislation to assess and address gaps in order to tackle the dual challenge of food waste and plastic waste. This includes single-use plastic packaging reduction targets, scaling up reusable packaging and reviewing eco-design criteria, cosmetic standards and labelling.
  • Use market-based instruments to prompt behavioural change towards avoiding food and plastic waste and keeping resources in the economy. This includes using green public procurement (GPP), extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, deposit refund schemes and possibly progressive taxation on virgin plastics.
  • Provide greater investment and funding for waste prevention systems, including zero and reusable packaging systems and better integrated SFSCs between rural and urban areas.

The study was based on literature review and data analysis. Several interviews were also carried out with stakeholders implementing zero waste or package free practices as part of their businesses. The report provides a general overview of food waste and packaging waste, and then examines the different stages of the food supply chain. The report is supported by an Annex with definitions and data, as well as three standalone briefings covering Short Food Supply Chains (SFSCs), Over-packaging, and Package Free Retail. A separate report reviews existing LCA studies examines food packaging.

All publications linked to the study can be downloaded below. For more information please contact Jean-Pierre Schweitzer and Susanna Gionfra.

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