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Posted by Gaby on 17/11/15

Waste – The Perils and Blessings of Packaging.

Birds mistaking plastic for food
Image Credit: Bo Eide

177 million tonnes a year. That is how much waste we in the UK generate every year according to Defra. Sending waste to landfill or incinerating it without energy recovery should ideally be the last resort – these processes are harmful because of the greenhouse gases they emit. We all recycle when our councils make it easy for us but beyond ‘doing our bit’ by putting the right packaging in the right bin, I’m guessing that not many people would think much about it after that.

But how do we feel when we see those images of our plastic seas? The shocking images of the amount of plastic waste in our oceans, strangling turtles and dolphins? Horrified! Yet, it’s difficult to connect our everyday lives and behaviour to those huge pacific garbage patches (there are five), but very easy to be outraged at ‘our’ collective throw-away culture and wasteful behaviour.

Deceased bird with plastic waste in stomach
Image Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquaters

In addition to harming wildlife, recent research suggests that the toxins in plastic ocean waste could be moving up the food chain and presenting a potential threat to human health. This National Geographic article outlines the extent of the problem and explains that the science is still young and researchers haven’t yet been able to reliably quantifythe damage it is causing.

Plastic bags are another such problem, which unless you have been hiding under a rock for the last couple of weeks, you will probably know about. Single use plastic bags will cost you 5p, to encourage us to reuse and reduce the number of plastic bags in circulation.  If you have time to watch an amusing ‘mockumentary’ on the Life of a Plastic bag – click here.

Food Waste
Image Credit: sxcxel

Food waste is also a huge and avoidable issue. But again, it’s difficult to connect every day behaviour to the large scale issue of food waste. There aren’t neat little ‘recycle’ logos stamped on to our apple cores reminding us to do something responsible with them, there aren’t food waste bins in the streets.

Research carried out by WRAP in 2013 estimated that food waste within UK household, hospitality and food service, food manufacture, retail and wholesale sectors amounted to approximately 12 million tonnes, worth 19 billion a year and 20 million tonnes of GHG emissions. In global terms, the FAO estimated in 2013 that one third of the food produced around the world, is wasted – creating a detrimental impact on our ecosystem services which we cannot live without and adding 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the mix.

This is an alarming statistic when taking into account that  nearly 800 million people in the world do not have enough food. So, we have a problem. We waste too much food and we throw away a lot of plastic (including packaging) some of which can end up in landfill or our oceans.

We sell packaging for a living, so we may sound a bit conflicted here. One point in its defence, is that food packaging can actually contribute to the reduction of the food waste problem. Food packaging, as the FPA points out in this response to a Sunday Times article prolongs the shelf-life of food. Without packaging, food would go off much quicker and as I hope I’ve already made clear, that is also bad for the environment.

Click here for some interesting facts on how packaging can help you reduce food waste. Food packaging also helps to sell food. It’s a marketing tool for the food service industry.

Food Packaging making fresh food last longer
Image Credit: Ricardo

Food packaging can have a direct influence on sales, as pointed out here in this Wall Street Journal article. It goes without saying that if the packaging looks good, and the food inside is visible, consumers are more likely to pick it up off the shelf and hand over their hard-earned cash.

It’s quite easy to see packaging as a necessary evil, but there are organisations out there that point out that packaging has revolutionised our lives and perversely, does help the environment in many ways.

London Bio Packaging was started in 2005 with the vision of helping to reduce the problem of packaging waste, via the use of alternative and recycled materials. From incremental steps in behaviour change at a personal and local level to larger scale funding efforts (e.g. Closed Loop Fund), new legislation (e.g. packaging producer responsibility regulations), ongoing research into the biodegradable materials (e.g. by the Open University and Imperial College London) as well as the development of flagship packaging products (e.g. The Coca Cola Plant bottle), there is light at the end of the tunnel!

 

Featured Image Credit: Mick C

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