How the food sector is fighting plastic waste

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Plastic waste takes the spotlight ©iStock
Plastic waste takes the spotlight ©iStock

Related tags Recycling

Food and beverage manufacturers are increasingly responding to concern over the negative impact that plastic waste is having on the environment.

Within the European Union, one-third of all plastic waste is sent straight to landfill. Millions of tonnes of this ends up in the oceans.

This does not only represent an immediate threat to wildlife. Over time, larger pieces of plastic break down into tiny particles, called microplastic.

Microplastic particles are damaging to ecosystems. They also soak up chemical additives and endocrine disruptors. When they are eaten they can enter the food chain, representing a risk to human health.

It is a global problem – and one that is increasingly on the agenda of food manufacturers and regulators alike.

Recycling collaboration

The EU has made plastics a priority in its Circular Economy package. The bloc has said it wants to raise the recycling target for plastic packaging to 55% and reduce landfilling to no more than 10% by 2030.

In order to improve recycling rates, collaboration across all actors is required – from consumers to FMCG manufacturers, the waste management sector and regulators, Richard Kirkman, chief technology and innovation officer at recycling group Veolia UK and Ireland, told FoodNavigator.

“To address the overall challenge, I’m a firm believer the solution lies in collaboration and at Veolia we want to ensure sustainability throughout the entire packaging supply chain, including designers, manufacturers, processors and consumers,”​ he said.

“This is because the whole lifecycle needs to be considered from design to disposal to end-of-life care; no one aspect should be detrimental to the other – or the environment. Companies should be aiming to be more sustainable at each stage by being more energy efficient, making packaging with fewer materials that can be 100% recycled, through to looking at the attitudes and behaviours of their consumers towards litter and addressing any challenges there.”

Kirkman said that dealing with plastics is moving up the agenda and collaboration is increasing. “Communication channels are certainly opening up but more can always be done,”​ he noted pointing to conferences such as RECOUP which looked at topics surrounding the development of circular economic models.

Call for oxo-degradable plastic ban

Veolia was one of 150 companies and global organisations who have united behind a call to ban oxo-degradable plastic.

Major food sector manufacturers Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever and Danone were also among those to endorse a global prohibition of oxo-degradable plastic when they signed a statement put out by campaign group the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Oxo-degradable plastic packaging – the type used in carrier bags – has been presented as a solution to plastic pollution because it is claimed it degrades into harmless residues over a period of time, ranging from a few months to years. However, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Initiative flagged a mounting body of evidence suggesting this is not the case.

“The available evidence overwhelmingly suggests oxo-degradable plastics do not achieve what their producers claim and instead contribute to microplastic pollution. In addition, these materials are not suited for effective long-term reuse, recycling at scale or composting, meaning they cannot be part of a circular economy,”​ Rob Opsomer, lead for systemic initiatives at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, explained.

Progress made, but not enough...

Progress in tackling oxo-degradable plastics has been made “particularly in Europe​”, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation noted.

In the UK, for example, retailers such as the Tesco and the Co-operative have stopped the use of oxo-degradable plastics in carrier bags. Meanwhile, France banned the use of oxo-degradable plastics altogether in 2015.

However, oxo-degradable plastics are still produced in many European countries, including the UK, and marketed across the world as safely biodegradable. Several countries in the Middle-East and Africa, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Ghana and Togo, are still promoting the use of oxo-degradable plastics – or have even made their use mandatory, the Foundation said.

“To create a plastics system that works, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative, together with the signing organisations, supports innovation that designs out waste and pollution, and keeps products and materials in high-value use in line with the principles of a circular economy," ​the group's statement read. 

Consumer awareness and the business case 

While global policy remains patchy, many multinationals are nevertheless increasingly taking a pro-active approach to plastics management. This is being prompted by environmental concerns as well as growing consumer awareness of the issue.

According to a UK YouGov survey earlier this year, over half of British consumers would favour a new drink - of a similar price, quality and flavour - in a recyclable bottle. Furthermore, 30% of adults now consider recyclable packaging ‘important’ when choosing what drink to buy. Indeed, more consumers identified this as an important factor influencing purchase decisions than branding, which was selected by 26% of respondents.

Veolia’s Kirkman stressed that there is also a strong business case for developing strategies to deal with plastics sustainably.

“Some businesses recognise the environmental impact of their packaging and their customer’s growing interest in environmental protection. To address this they’re starting to set out strategies to reduce the amount of material in their bottles and cans and are starting to use recycled and renewable materials, amongst others things.

“As more and more customers want to be able to recycle they will hold companies to higher standards and we will see more companies taking similar steps; however, there are also business incentives for rethinking packaging and making it more sustainable, from reduced material costs right through to lower transportation costs for reducing packaging overall.”

The World Wildlife Fund’s director of sustainability R&D, Erin Simon, also stressed the need to develop circular management systems.

“When public policy supports the cascading use of materials – systems where materials get reused over and over, this strengthens economies and drives the development of smarter materials management systems. This leads to wins for both the environment and society,”​ Simon explained.

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