Packaging not preventing food waste, say NGOs / Small format, convenience food packaging linked to higher waste levels / Packaging design and recyclability crucial
A rise in plastic food packaging is failing to reduce Europe's growing food waste problem, according to a report published by Friends of the Earth Europe (FOE Europe, UK; and Zero Waste Europe ( on behalf of NGO Rethink Plastic Alliance ( While well designed packaging has a role to play in protecting food and extending shelf life, many packaging applications, such as those used for takeaway and pre-prepared food, are connected to the emergence of an on-the-go culture and declining household sizes, and are often linked to higher levels of waste, says the report.

Although evidence suggests that the average weight of plastic packaging has fallen since 2004, trends towards multi-material, flexible packaging, combined with the growing demand for convenience foods, has resulted in packaging that is increasingly complex and difficult to recycle. "Small format packaging represents 10% of the packaging market by weight but such items are very vulnerable to leakage into the environment and are disproportionately present as marine litter," it says.

Other examples of packaging practices linked to higher levels of food waste include multipacks and the chopping of green beans to fit plastic packaging, says the report, entitled "Unwrapped: How throwaway plastic is failing to solve Europe's food waste problem (and what we need to do instead)". Multipacks are implemented to support marketing and brand objectives or economic efficiencies rather than to preserve food, it says.

In Europe’s globalised food system, which is characterised by long supply chains and multiple intermediaries, cosmetic specifications and packaging standards can lead producers to waste edible food, says the report. Rethinking and shortening supply chains can help to recognise the value of agricultural produce, and bring consumers closer to local farmers and facilitate waste prevention. This can then be combined with higher rates of packaging reuse and recycling, suggests the report.

Packaging waste has grown alongside food waste, challenging the potential of plastic packaging to contribute to reducing food waste, the NGOs say. Between 2004 and 2014, household food waste in the EU doubled to an estimated 30m t/y, while plastic packaging waste increased by 50% to more than 15m t, according to the study. It estimates that about 40% of plastic packaging waste comes from food packaging. However, part of the increases may be attributable to new countries joining the EU, it notes.

Meadhbh Bolger, resource justice campaigner at FOE Europe, says, "EU decision-makers need to listen to the growing public appetite to quit plastics, help Europe lead in adopting strict rules to limit throwaway plastics and shift to localised food systems without disposable packaging." Life cycle assessment (LCA) tools, used by the European Commission (EC) to tackle plastic pollution, often simplify the drivers of food waste and overstate the benefits of plastic packaging, say the NGOs. This includes focusing on carbon emissions as the key environmental impact, and assuming all plastics are recycled, incinerated or landfilled after use.

"The packaging industry and the EC are not practicing sound decision making when it comes to food packaging," says Ariadna Rodrigo, sustainable products campaigner at Zero Waste Europe. "Their methodology, which often ignores the impacts of plastic waste, results in conclusions that favour complex food packs which are impossible to reuse or recycle. The result is the promotion of plastic packaging designed for landfill and incineration."

FOE's study "Unwrapped: How throwaway plastic is failing to solve Europe's food waste problem (and what we need to do instead)" (April 2018) as a PDF file.
11.05.2018 [239585-0]
Published on 11.05.2018

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