Plastic pollution is bad, but food waste is far worse – Simon Lockrey

In 1970, Coca-Cola investigated the environmental impact of making reusable glass bottles and found single-use plastic bottles could be better in many contexts. It switched to plastic in the early 1990s.

Plastic these days is framed as a problem to be solved. There is global momentum to ban plastic, particularly single-use packaging. The EU has issued directives, the UN Environment Assembly has committed to end plastic pollution and charitable organisations have formed global plastic pacts. The environmental impacts of proliferating plastic packaging are mounting, and there’s evidence microplastic particles are ending up in human food, the effects on human health starting to garner attention.

So it seems paradoxical that Coca-Cola could have chosen plastic on the basis of environmental values.

The 1970 study used a method that these days is known as life cycle assessment. It measures materials, energy, waste and emissions at every step of the packaging’s manufacture, use and disposal and attributes potential environmental impacts to them. For commercial reasons the full results of the Coke study were not published, but summaries released in 1976 said that shipping heavier reusable glass bottles and the resources required to maintain such systems meant single-use plastic bottles were usually preferable.

Life cycle assessment is a powerful tool because of Its ability to compare impacts of different systems with interdependencies between inputs and outputs. The related industrial systems may have evolved since 1970, but the Coke example illustrates the method often challenges preconceptions of what the best environmental choice may be.

A life cycle assessment is a good tool for investigating complex environmental trade-offs, particularly since one of the key industries that runs in parallel with single-use plastic, the food industry, connects to another global problem: food loss and waste.

According to UN data, 20 to 30 percent of food produced is wasted. If global food waste and loss were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases on Earth. The energy that has gone into growing the food, the supply-chain fuels and energy, and the greenhouse gases emitted when food rots are key contributors to this stunning statistic. Somewhat counter-intuitively, life cycle assessments of single-use plastics and food waste can show climate-change impacts of wasting food can dwarf those of packaging.

Packaging is designed for a range of purposes. Good packaging helps extend shelf life by protecting food from bumps, heat and cold, various spoiling gases and light. Often this is done across land, sea and air, as our supply chains become global and more complicated.

Packaging also plays a role in helping conserve food once it’s in homes. Moisture-reduction sachets, resealable zips, information on the pack to advise on correct storage, ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ dates, and sophisticated technologies such as barrier properties or gas scavengers all serve to keep food at its best. Consumers often don’t recognise the purpose, or benefits, of packaging in terms of preventing food waste.

If reducing packaging leads to more food waste, a nuanced and sophisticated approach is required to consider these twin issues. Ultimately, the best option for the environment is to reduce both excess packaging and food waste.

In Australia, 2025 targets to make packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable are gaining momentum. They are loosely in alignment with related European movements. Such an approach does not just involve packaging design and manufacture; end-of-life systems also need to be ready for these changes, or else all those design efforts will be for naught.

Education can encourage consumers to recycle, reuse and compost effectively. In the past, consumers have shown they can learn new programmes for managing their waste and scholars have spent considerable time analysing which education strategies are the most effective.

Packaging could be retired for food where it is not required. UK charity WRAP recently released a study explaining where there may be opportunities to reduce packaging on a range of fresh-produce categories. Where packaging is still needed to reduce food waste due to elongated supply chains or highly perishable goods, then making it recyclable, reusable or compostable may help reduce end-of-life plastic problems. Educating consumers about the role packaging plays in reducing food waste and how to make sure packaging is recouped in a circular system would likely need to go hand in hand with this approach so consumers become active agents for change.

If the world moved towards a zero-packaging scenario across the board, the whole supply chain and the way humans as a society relate to food would need a transformational rethink. Without moving to a distributed system of production and supply, the goal of zero packaging would be difficult to achieve. The sheer distance involved and time required to ship food – particularly highly perishable fresh produce – from centralised farms in a condition fit to eat make this nearly impossible.

Solutions will require creativity.

Perhaps in the future micro farms will be established across metropolises. As the technology develops, these sites might consist of urban indoor or vertical farming to maximise control, volume and efficiency in small or dense spaces.

Likewise, people may need to revert to eating produce in season and buying it closer to the time of harvest. Or perhaps industry will engineer a way to produce food out of season in micro farms, or produce crops with more resilience to being unpackaged. Such attributes would likely require bioengineering, climate control and nutrient dosing, and immense ‘smarts’, sites and resources. The move to a fully circular economy – where organic waste is processed in cities adjacent to urban farms to ‘feed’ the system and repeat the cycle – may help. Clearly, a range of other issues would need to be addressed and actions taken in concert with such visions of the future.

Humans have transformed cities before. Rome, the thriving capital of modern Italy, is famously built on the ruins of the Rome of millennia past. It’s possible that compounding environmental problems and life cycle assessment of the damage already done may force humankind into a future more radical than an ordinary plastic Coke bottle could ever have presaged.

(Associate Professor Simon Lockrey is based within the School of Design RMIT and is the Reduce Program Leader in the Fight Food Waste CRC (FFW CRC))

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