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Plastic packaging failing to prevent food waste crisis, new study finds

Europeans among the biggest producers of plastic packaging waste globally

Thirty-seven per cent of all food sold in the EU is wrapped or packaged in plastic, and most of it is only used once.

Thirty-seven per cent of all food sold in the EU is wrapped or packaged in plastic, and most of it is only used once.

A rise in plastic food packaging is failing to reduce Europe’s growing food waste problem, and in some cases may even be fuelling it, according to pioneering new research. The study shows how annual per-capita use of plastic packaging has grown simultaneously with levels of food waste since the 1950s – now at 30kg and 173kg respectively.

The review of available evidence published by Friends of the Earth Europe and Zero Waste Europe, on behalf of the Rethink Plastic alliance, also reveals that: 

• Big retailers are driving food and plastic packaging waste in Europe through practices such as food grading standards  and packaging food in multipacks and small-format packs. One study showed that chopping green beans to fit plastic packaging resulted in 30 to 40 per cent of the beans being wasted. 

• Thirty-seven per cent of all food sold in the EU is wrapped in plastic – the most widely used packaging material. 

Chopping green beans to fit plastic packaging resulted in 30 to 40 per cent of the beans being wasted

• The cost of food waste in the EU is estimated at €143 billion each year, equivalent to the annual operational budget of the EU.

Suzanne Maas, resource use campaigner at Friends of the Earth Malta, said: “A rise in plastic food packaging is failing to reduce Europe’s growing food waste problem  and, in some cases, may even be fuelling it, the new evidence shows. Most plastic packaging is only used once, with 95 per cent of its value lost to the global economy after this first use. Most of the marine litter we see is single-use plastic for food packaging – excuses for using more plastic to reduce food waste just don’t add up.”

The study also highlights how the environmental impact of plastics can be systematically underestimated when making policies that impact food packaging, including some in the new measures being developed by the European Commission to tackle plastic pollution. For example, with the current use of the ‘Life Cycle Assessment’ (LCA) methodology, the Commission is leaving the door open to policies that fail to tackle plastic pollution.

Maas said: “The packaging industry and the European Commission are not practising sound decision-making when it comes to food packaging. Their methodology, which often ignores the impact of plastic waste, results in complex food packs that are impossible to reuse or recycle. The result is the promotion of plastic packaging designed for landfill and incineration.”

The findings come as the European Commission prepares legislation to tackle plastic pollution, with a number of measures, including a draft law on single-use plastics, expected before the summer.

A summary and the full report is available at https://cloud.foeeurope.org/index.php/s/jS7A7FkYST6oRPB .

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