The negative environmental impacts have been very well documented in recent years. It is undeniable that plastic pollution has been becoming a major concern. Indeed, plastic pollution is an increasingly urgent global issue, with millions of tonnes of plastic entering oceans every year.
As brands and retailers make more effort to reduce their environmental footprints, we have seen many companies making the shift away from plastic packaging. On the face of it this seems like good news. However, if we delve a little deeper, we may find that we are replacing one set of complicated problems with a different set of complicated problems. That being said, this depends entirely on the type of product being packaged, as well as what the replacement packaging material will be.
Challenges For Food Packaging
When we talk about supermarkets, the main types of products that are on sale are perishable goods. Whether fresh, frozen, bottled or canned, most of the products we see on supermarket shelves are food items.
It’s recently been announced that major supermarkets in the United Kingdom are pushing to go plastic free. On the face of it this seems like a great move that could take a lot of plastic out of circulation. The idea is that this can be rolled out to other food products too, so considering the vast amount of plastic shrink wrap that is seen on the fresh fruit and veg section.
The potential downside of removing the plastic packaging only really becomes apparent when you consider what the packaging does. For example, consider a piece of fruit that has been packaged using a modern shrinkwrap machine and compatible shrink wrap film. This piece of fruit has effectively been sealed off from the outside world. The shrink wrap protects the fruit from airborne contamination, as well as contamination during transport, storage and display.
This is an important thing to keep in mind because properly applied shrink wrap extends the shelf life of a wide range of products. It also provides a fair amount of physical protection too, so fresh products are less likely to be damaged before they reach the supermarket shelves.
The conclusion here is that it is a good idea to remove plastic packaging, but if it amounts to more food waste then it may actually be beneficial to keep using shrinkwrap materials.
Some Products Just Need to be Wrapped
In the world of convenience food, microwave meals and food on the go, it’s inevitable that some packaging is going to be needed. This is especially true with pre prepared foods! It’s possible to use other packaging materials like cardboard, paper or tin foil, but they do not have the same benefits as plastic.
The issue is that plastic has been a wonder material for so many things. It can protect and preserve. It can also present too, given that translucent polyolefin is completely see-through. It can also be heated, chilled, frozen and microwaved without any problems at all. The main thing about plastic packaging materials like shrink wrap is that they are cheap.
There are non plastic alternatives that can actually provide the exact same benefits as plastic. The problem is that they cost more to produce. They’re also not quite as versatile, which has practicality issues when it comes to food products.
Even though sustainable packaging materials are very much on the rise, they still have a long way to go before they become widely used as an alternative to plastic.
So What Is The Answer?
There is no magical solution to the issue of plastic pollution, especially considering the implications for food security. As discussed, plastic packaging has so many benefits and is incredibly versatile. The positives of using plastic free packaging is that it will help reduce the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans and waterways. This could have immense ecological and environmental benefits. However, the transition to plastic free packaging is going to be a challenging one.
Another aspect that has not been discussed yet is how plastic waste can be processed. Recycling plastics is a complicated process, but researchers and scientists are trying to find ways to deal with the plastic pollution problem. One of the biggest challenges here is how to deal with single-use plastics once they have been used. The best way forward may be for more widespread adoption of non-plastic alternatives, or plastic materials that can be reused or recycled.
Dealing with the issue of plastic in supermarkets will require collaboration between brands, manufactures and governments. It will also require changes in consumer behaviour too. Ultimately, consumers need to be educated on how their purchasing decisions and behaviour contribute to the plastic pollution problem.