From saran-wrap to plastic bags, over the past three years I have been on a journey to reduce my food-plastic waste. This month’s column takes stock of three ways I have already shifted and three long-term goals for myself. The result: easy actions to reduce your food-plastic waste, whether your journey is just beginning or you’re a well-seasoned (pun intended) pro.
How Bad is Food-Plastic Waste Really?
*It’s bad – do yourself a favour skip to the next section if you are having a rough day.
Food-plastic waste is pretty rotten for the planet. In fact, according to Friends of the Earth Europe, “most of the litter found on beaches across the globe can be associated with the food, beverage and tobacco sectors.” Indeed, 85% of beach litter around the globe is plastics. Single-use plastics such as chip bags, take-out containers make up 61% of this waste. These smaller format food-plastics only make up 10% of the total packaging market, but they have a massive impact on ocean life. In terms of weight, that’s 700 tonnes each day flowing into the Mediterranean sea! In another report in 2016, a single NGO collected more than 350,000 take-out containers and 400,000 straws in beach clean-ups. The World Economic Forum has gone so far as to estimate that all the fish in the ocean will weigh less than the plastic humans have dumped in the waters by 2050. Scary stuff!
The food-plastic waste problem is getting worse. Since 1950, about 42% of plastics around the world have been produced for packaging. Each person in the EU wastes more than 30kg of food-plastic packaging per year. And, between 2004 and 2014, plastic packaging for food in the European Union rose by as much as 50%. Covid-19 is compounding this food-plastic waste problem: in Thailand, the Environmental Institute has noted a radical growth of food-plastic waste as take-out orders from restaurants are climbing.
On the flip side, plastic can have major benefits for food-safety (particularly in pandemic times) and preservation. In fact, if food wasn’t packed with plastic, almost three times the amount of related greenhouse gas emissions would be produced. Plastic food-wrapping can even help save fuel in transportation vehicles by making them lighter! Why am I now advocating for plastic? I want to make clear that these issues are not black and white. Many more studies need to happen before we call for a complete ban on plastics.
One thing is certain: it would be hugely beneficial to marine life if we all cut down on our food-plastic waste.
It’s Not All Bad News!
From mycelium take-out bowls to edible yogurt packaging, scientists and designers around the world are creating innovative solutions to our food-plastic problems.
In Sweden, the RISE research institute has developed a flat container for soup packaging made out of plant cell and vegetable fibres. Made from mycelium, the tiny threads that branch out from fungi into the ground, the flat container unfolds into an origami-like bowl that is 100% compostable. The best part: the bowl takes only one week to grow and less than a month to compost!
Based in Slangerup, Denmark, PABOCO or the Paper Bottle Company hopes to replace plastic bottles with sustainably sourced paper bottles. The bottles are created with a “bio-based barrier that withstands both water vapour and oxygen transmission.” With a combination of biodegradable materials, a sustainable production process, and an educational marketing strategy that promises to ensure efficient disposal, PABOCO really seems to be the whole package!
In Indonesia, a startup Evoware, has developed edible seaweed food packaging to contain items such as shampoo, medical supplies, or coffee grounds. As an extra treat: the seaweed packaging can be dissolved or eaten with the food it protects. Even the seaweed for their packets is locally sourced from Indonesian seaweed farmers! Check out this cool video that shows the seaweed being dissolved with coffee granules in hot water.
As noted in the Friends of the Earth Europe report, it is important to keep in mind that “while there is a temptation to look to innovation to ‘solve’ sustainability issues, much of the knowledge needed to reduce waste already exists.” On that actionable note, here is what you can do to reduce your food-plastic waste in your daily life!
Three Easy Ways to Start Reducing Your Food-Plastic Consumption
When I first started reducing my plastic-food waste, I focused on three easy-to-implement changes. Without further ado, here is what I did!
Shop local: It’s important to remember that a large part of the food-plastic waste problem is generated by the producers. The globalized food system, with many long supply chains that span the globe, creates a ton of plastic waste. (If you want to learn more: I get into a little more <detail in this article>).
That being said, preservative plastic packaging is often only necessary if the food is being transported over long distances. Unnecessary food branding and marketing on packages is another culprit.
The burden of ending plastic-waste does not fall on your shoulders. We need to re-work our supply chains on a national and international level. But, shopping local [insert link to my other article] is an easy way to be part of the solution!
Bring reusable storage items with you: From water bottles, to coffee cups, to fabric bags, using reusable containers for food transportation is a quick way to reduce your plastic footprint. Equally as important is not beating yourself up when you forget to bring your reusable containers. It happens to the best of us!
Swap out single-use storage plastics at home: Switching up my plastic-wrap for wax paper is maybe the best way I reduced my food-plastic waste and my food waste in general. Storing quick-to-mould gluten-free bread in wax paper extended its life by days! A bonus: the packaging smells delicious!
The Next Steps (for When You’re Ready)
These past two weeks I have been tracking my food-plastic waste to further reduce my food-plastic footprint. Writing this article seemed like a good opportunity to check-in, re-assess and improve! Based on my experience, these are three next steps to continue reducing your food-plastic footprint.
- Eat less take-out or find innovative solutions: My number one source of food-plastic consumption? Take-out containers. The pandemic has spiked my takeout intake as I avoid dining in but keep trying to support local businesses. As stores start to re-open, try eating in-person more often. Or, see if you can pick up the food with your own reusable container. Maybe Google to see if there are any places that have reusable packaging, like this Belgian start-up or Kind Cafe in Vancouver!
- Reduce “sustainable” or recyclable packaging: A study of McDonald’s restaurants in Finland revealed that while 93% of the packaging could be recycled, only 29% was actually recycled. What can you do? Buy from bulk food stores or farmers markets because they tend to use less packaging.
- Continue learning and expanding: One of the most important steps in my journey was taking the time to learn and integrate techniques that reduce my food-plastic waste. This included tracking my food-plastic waste.
Education is key to making progress. A study of 60 families revealed that when they were educated about the environmental impact of food-packaging choices, they reduced their waste by an average of 5kg each week.
That means, just by reading this article you are taking an important step to shifting your old plastic habits! If you want to take it a step farther, Google “circular economy” to bring your waste-reduction knowledge to the next level!
Bonus tool…advocacy: Volunteer your time or donate money to organizations who are fighting for plastic-reduction. One great global NGO is Plastic Oceans, who have centers in Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Chile, as well as partnerships in Indonesia and Madagascar. Supporting local advocacy groups is also a great way to help the movement: try Googling “food plastic waste [insert locale]” and see what pops up!
Now that you know all my tips, I’d love to learn more about your favourite food-plastic reduction techniques or advocacy groups. How do you reduce your food-plastic footprint? Comment below!