Plastic packaging provides a solution to the challenges faced in the transportation and distribution of food, particularly the reduction of spoilage and, ultimately, of food wastage. However, due to the devastating impact it has had on our environment, many people are calling for the ban of singleuse plastics in packaging.
Today, plastic is ubiquitous throughout the food distribution network and many rely on these packaged goods to provide nutritious food for themselves and their communities. Without plastic, the number of people with access to fresh goods and produce would fall dramatically. Plastic can extend the shelf life of many goods, allowing for food to be shipped to every comer of the globe.
It seems that plastic plays a huge part in food security for many. So why are we trying very hard to remove it? Are there other elements that we should consider when looking at the plastic problem?
Plastic wastage and pollution is a global concem that should be treated with the utmost urgency. Not only is plastic infiltrating natural ecosystems all around the world, its production is also contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions. With plastic particles showing in our water supply and food, it is now costing our health and our planet.
In addition, plastic pollution adversely affects developing nations. Poor countries often lack the infrastructure to support recycling schemes, not to mention the cases of developed nations sending their loads overseas. In 2020, for example, the UK alone shipped out 7,133 metric tonnes of waste to non-OECD countries, including Malaysia and Indonesia.
The real problem, however, lies not with the plastic itself, but with the food value chain as a whole. At present, the chain is made up of incredibly long and complex networks, which involve transporting food hundreds, even thousands of miles from their original origin. Fundamentally, this means that the process has become reliant on plastic to safeguard the long journey.
We must refocus our efforts to examine the food system itself, instead of blaming plastic entirely Solving the deep-rooted issues within the value chain is a complex task, but a good start would be to look at shortening it through the localisation of food systems. By reducing food miles and, consequently, the time between farm and fork, the amount of packaging needed to maintain freshness naturally decreases. With lower food miles and fewer actors within the value chain, distribution networks need only to rely on larger and more durable packaging (crates) that can readily be reused.
A systemic approach is therefore needed if we are to achieve food security, protect livelihoods in the value chain, and avert environmental destruction. Reducing, or even eliminating the use of plastic is possible, but only when enabling conditions are present to guarantee the quality and safety of food whilst ensuring that fresh food remains affordable, especially to low income consumers.