The increased use of plastic food packaging is failing to reduce Europe’s growing food waste problem, and may even be inadvertently fuelling it, campaign group Friends of the Earth (FoE) has claimed.
Its study, Justifying Plastic Pollution: The Shortcomings of Life Cycle Assessments in Food Packaging Policy found that annual per-capita use of plastic packaging has grown alongside food waste and was now at 30kg and 173kg, respectively.
It said large retailers were driving food and plastic packaging waste through practices such as packing food into multipacks and small format packs – with one study having shown, for example, that chopping green beans to fit plastic packaging resulted in 30-40% wastage.
The study found that 37% of all food sold in the EU was wrapped in plastic and the cost of food waste was €143bn (£124.6bn) each year, equivalent to the EU’s annual operational budget.
During 2004-14, household food waste in the EU doubled to an estimated 30 million tonnes a year. Plastic packaging waste increased by 50% during the same period to some 15 million tonnes, with around 40% of plastic packaging waste being derived from the food sector.
FoE Europe and Zero Waste Europe produced the study on behalf of the Rethink Plastic Alliance.
FoE said the results showed that the role of plastic in avoiding food waste may have been overestimated.
Meadhbh Bolger, resource justice campaigner at FoE Europe, said: “The results are in: wrapping, bottling and packing food in plastic does not systemically prevent food waste, and sometimes even causes it.
“It’s a red herring that is causing terrible pollution of our land, sea and air.”
Paul Vanston, chief executive of packaging waste body Incpen, said: “The fundamental challenges of food waste and plastics waste that are highlighted in the FoE report are ones for all societies across the globe to tackle.”
Incpen said its ‘Fresher for Longer’ project in 2013 had shown that consumers’ perceptions and actions were complex. It included concern about food waste increasing when consumers were better informed, and that attitudes to packaging were linked to the ability to recycle.
It said this work should be updated to understand consumers’ perceptions and behaviours following developments in environmental understanding since 2013.