As we all know, we don’t have to walk too far down any supermarket aisle to realise just what a huge challenge it would be to remove all plastic or non-recyclable packaging used for groceries. So many of them rely on plastic and other packaging for reasons of safety, quality and practicality.

There have already been moves by the grocery industry and the Government to remove offenders such as shopping bags, microbeads in cleansers, plastic cotton buds and straws.

They’re a start but they’re small, and the big challenges are around products where plastics and specialty packaging are used to preserve freshness, nutrition, and for food safety. Without some of them, it would be close to impossible to get some frozen goods (e.g. peas) home. The food safety aspects are very real. Food safety is paramount in the industry and nothing solves these sort of problems like convenient plastics.

It’s hard, but the search continues to find substitutes for plastics for personal care and cleaning products as well … the list goes on.

Then there’s the issue of food waste, a major issue in New Zealand (as it is in most developed countries). It’s estimated 229,022 tonnes of food is sent to landfill by Kiwi households each year, half of which is avoidable. The Government estimates that’s enough to feed everyone in Dunedin for two years!

Someone complained in the media recently about a cucumber being wrapped in plastic film “when it’s got its own skin to protect it”. That’s true, but a British study found film keeps cucumber fresh for 10 days where otherwise it would last just a couple and contribute to that mountain of food we throw away. And though cucumbers make up only a tiny portion of that mountain, consider what would happen if we didn’t have film to protect some other foods. A household rubbish survey in 2018 showed that among the top 10 foods we throw are those that last longer if covered by plastic: bread (10% of what we throw away), leftovers (8%), poultry (3%), rice (3%), lettuces (2%, and beef (2%).

While manufacturers are focused on designing-out unnecessary packaging or moving to different materials – and will continue to do so – their options are limited. They’re also faced with a balancing act: consumers say they want more sustainable and recyclable materials, but they also want safety, freshness and convenience. It’s not always possible to achieve both.

To help in the push for solutions on sustainability in packaging, the Food & Grocery Council last year established a Sustainability Committee. It’s made up of people from the senior level of many of the biggest food and grocery companies, and has the goal of making the sector more sustainable in every aspect. Their initial focus is on product packaging and the circular economy, and will cover plastic and paper packaging, beverage containers/container deposit systems, and compostable packaging.

In the wider community, collection and recycling is a big issue, because though we have plenty of raw material, we have a problem with collecting, sorting and processing it into reusable resources.

The problem is with the kerbside collections of many of our 67 territorial authorities. A recent survey revealed the problem: 19 councils don’t accept many hard plastics, 26 have no policy on Tetra Paks, and 25 have no policy on aerosols. Five don’t offer any recycling information at all. Meat trays are a prime example of the problem: they can be made out of PET, which is cheap and easy to recycle, but just half of councils collect them.

So, while the industry can find solutions, they won’t have the desired impact until our councils get their act together and collect enough of each type of packaging to warrant onshore recycling facilities. Until it does, we are never going to be in a position to recycle, reuse or compost single-use plastics from food and grocery products.

(originally published in Supermarket News)