Plastic is everywhere. It’s used in almost every industry you can think of – construction, transportation, electronics, healthcare, and agriculture. And when you look down the supermarket aisle you can see how big a part it plays in the food and grocery sector.

It’s used because it has huge benefits: it’s light, strong, cheap, and can be easily made into different shapes and sizes.

Because it’s lighter than glass, wood and metal, goods packaged in plastics are cheaper to transport, while aircraft with plastic parts are more fuel efficient. It’s revolutionised healthcare by improving sterility through the use of disposable syringes, gloves, and catheters. In agriculture, it protects and irrigates crops, drains water, and stores produce.

And it’s absolutely essential when it comes to food. It keeps it fresh and prevents waste, product tampering, and cross-contamination.

But plastic also has huge drawbacks: because it’s cheap, it’s ideal for single-use products which are often and easily thrown away. And the vast majority of it, thrown away or not, isn’t readily biodegradable.

I’ve just read an excellent report entitled Plastics in the Environment (by the Royal Society Te Aparangi), which highlights some very disturbing facts about plastic waste: 407 million tonnes of plastics were produced worldwide in 2015 and a whopping 302 million tonnes of that were thrown away; a rubbish-truck load of plastic waste – 15 tonnes – has been dumped into our oceans every 38 seconds over the past decade; and about 600 million plastic bags and 60 million bottles are used around the word every hour.

New Zealand’s part in this is not flash – we have the fifth-highest rate of plastic waste in the world – 159 grams per person per day (the US is highest at 286g).

The report doesn’t hold back when it talks about how the mismanagement of plastic waste contributes to the release of microplastics into the environment and the resulting damage to the marine environment, soil structure, microbes, and plant life. “It is likely that we are ingesting some level of plastics in our diet”, it says, pointing to research showing that “ongoing accumulation of toxins associated with plastics poses a risk to our food safety and public health”.

So what’s the food and grocery sector doing to help tackle this problem?

Manufacturers have for some years been investigating how they use plastics, and many have now moved to environment friendly packaging, using recycled, recyclable or compostable plastics, or developing systems that use durable, reusable and refillable packaging. Or they have set themselves tough targets to do so. Coke is a recent example, moving to increase plastics recycling and reduce plastics use by 500%, and using recycled plastics in new bottles. Bottles can go into bottles back into bottles!

The supermarkets have done their bit, apart from removing plastic shopping bags. Countdown has introduced recyclable meat trays and the film that goes around them, and has re-started a recycling scheme in Auckland that converts soft plastics into fence posts. Foodstuffs is testing a range of compostable bags, films and containers, including fibre-based netting (for onions and citrus fruit), sustainable punnets for grapes, plant-based cellulose bags for salads, and fibre packaging for other small fruit. Both chains have introduced bring-your-own-container schemes.

Contrary to popular belief, wrapping some fresh produce in plastic is better for the planet because it means the produce lasts longer, meaning less waste, less need for energy-hungry chillers, and less needs to be grown. That means using less water, less land and, in the case of hot-house vegetables, less energy. Take the humble cucumber: being 96% water, they have a ‘best before’ life of just 3 days – but plastic film can increase that to 14 days by stopping it losing so much water.

Despite the downsides of plastic, we need to be realistic about its use, particularly when it comes to food, because not everything can be moved to glass.

We should be concentrating on minimising not eradicating it. Short of returning to the pre-industrial age of food not lasting for more than a day or so, eradicating plastic completely from our lives is not practical.

(originally published in Supermarket News, August)

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