Plastic food packaging has a really bad reputation. We have all seen the images of wildlife getting trapped, or of plastic waste on the beaches and in the sea. But, plastic packaging is also really good at keeping food fresh and free from contamination so any shift away from plastic food packaging needs to address a whole range of potential unintended negative consequences including health hazards, allergic reactions, reduced shelf life, and a possibly worse environmental impact.
Why is plastic food packaging so prevalent?
Plastic food packaging is incredibly versatile. It is inexpensive, lightweight and easy to transport. Plastic food packaging protects food from contamination and methods such as vacuum packing can even extend the shelf-life of food products. Even with our current food packaging norms, a huge quantity of fresh food goes to waste. For example, in the UK approximately 1.3 million tonnes of edible vegetables and salad goes to waste each year.
Increasingly though, consumers are looking to reduce their plastic consumption. A 2019 YouGov survey found that 82% of Britons are actively trying to reduce the amount of plastic they discard. Half of those said that they would even be willing to pay more for a product with eco-friendly packaging. This shift in momentum to reduce plastic waste is driving the switch to plastic alternatives.
What are the alternatives to plastic food packaging?
Most plastic food packaging alternatives fall into one of three categories:
- A reversion to traditional packaging methods such as glass or metal.
- Innovative materials such as bioplastics. These mimic the look and feel of plastic, but are made from natural materials and break down differently.
- non-plastic mimicking alternatives such as those created from wheat or algae.
The intention of the latter two options is to break down more easily than the plastic food packaging that they replace. These products are intended to be biodegradable, which means that they can be broken down by microorganisms in to water, gasses and biomass. In some cases they may also be compostable, which means that they can be turned into compost if they break down under specific composting conditions. These specific conditions may only be reached at particular temperatures and are generally optimised in industrial composting facilities.
Compositable materials are certainly appealing from a food and sustainable packaging point of view because they can still be composted when contaminated with food waste. Unfortunately, not all local authorities offer separate food waste collection, and this food waste is not always processed in a suitable manner for compostable materials so they may be filtered out and sent to landfill or an incinerator. There is also a risk that compostable packaging can contaminate the plastic recycling stream, because they may look like recyclable plastic packaging and be mis-identified by consumers.
What are the implications of using bio-plastics?
Bio-plastics are currently more expensive to produce than conventional plastic food packaging, but are likely to be more environmentally sustainable. While there are clearly environmental advantages to be gained using bio-plastics and plastic food packaging alternatives some of the claims made by manufacturers of these products have not yet been fully substantiated. To ensure that they are having a positive impact on the environment the full packaging life cycle needs to be considered including production and disposal.
There are also some other concerns about the use of novel food packaging options. For example, some of the biomass products used to create bio-plastics can be contaminated with heavy metals such as lead during the growing process. These heavy metals can migrate onto food from the packaging that it is stored in. There are also concerns that some bio-materials such as those created from chitin could cause an allergic reaction in susceptible people because it is derived from shellfish shells.
Should we make the switch?
Clearly the sustainability of alternatives to plastic food packaging is more complex than its media presence would imply. Transitioning away from traditional plastic food packaging products has the potential for a slew of unintended negative consequences including health hazards, allergic reactions and shorter shelf life. Even if bio-plastics are more environmentally friendly we need to invest in developing the systems to process them appropriately so that they don’t end up doing more harm than good, and ensuring that consumers are sufficiently well educated in how to use and dispose of them correctly.
If you are interested in how manufacturing processes keep food safe for consumers then you might be interested in iQualifi’s online level 2 in food manufacturing. You could learn about how manufacturers keep food free from the bacterial contamination that makes food spoil or makes people ill. Or to see more analysis of alternatives to plastic food packaging visit the Food Standards Agency research.