France between plastic reduction and food waste

More than a month has passed since French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron’s ban on plastic packaging for a large number of fruits and vegetables came into effect. Although it is too early to determine the effectiveness of this new policy, we should be more concerned about the potential wider impact this new law could have.

Responding to consumer outcry over the excessive use of plastic packaging, President Macron appears to be ignoring data that indicates they could be facing a serious increase in food waste due to reduced shelf life plastic containers.

Additionally, this ban ignores initiatives by supermarkets to create loops for a range of products to recycle plastic packaging such as film and bags. On the contrary, it almost implies that all efforts to educate consumers and create personalized sites to return packaging have failed.

The French government recalls that over-packaged fruits and vegetables are an “aberration”, but also our excessive rates of food waste which should be reduced and not increased. What they might instead point to is the tendency of supermarkets to encourage consumers to buy too much of a product by bundling the product into one large package.

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Reduce plastic or waste more food

Allowing consumers to select the right amount to meet their consumption rate makes more sense and would limit household food waste.

Global food waste is 1.3 gigatonnes per year, according to a UN report. This is something that France has actively tried to resolve; In 2016, France became the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing away unused food thanks to unanimously passed legislation; however, food spoilage continues to be a huge environmental problem worldwide.

Although various factors are responsible for food waste, proper packaging plays a vital role in reducing food waste in the supply chain and increasing the shelf life of products. As such, banning it completely may prove to be a knee-jerk reaction that could ultimately cause more harm to the environment than good given that one tonne of food waste avoided could save 4.2 tonnes of equivalent CO2.

Researchers from the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) have calculated that the plastic packaging of a cucumber traveling from Spain to Switzerland represents 1% of the cucumber’s total environmental footprint. Because plastic helps cucumbers last longer, the total benefit of avoiding food waste is five times greater than the environmental impact.

Australian research backs this up with trials highlighting the practical reasons for using packaging for some fresh produce, whether to ensure product integrity in the supply chain or to extend shelf life and therefore avoid food waste. Many fruits and vegetables, such as cut salads, herbs, celery, mushrooms, etc. simply spoil due to loss of moisture during storage. This is where plastics can be very effective in extending shelf life and reducing food waste.

President Macron’s position is presented as an aggressive ban on plastic as “the enemy”, when in fact we need to take a holistic approach that looks at all sides of the problem.

The solution seems to be to find a balance

The key is to find a balance rather than leaning in one direction or another. Any solution we adopt must be carefully considered and all the impacts of this solution must be well assessed.

There is no doubt that we all need to work to reduce packaging where we can, without compromising the products it is meant to protect. There is a real case for the judicious deselection of many plastics that are currently only used for one purpose other than displaying goods and carrying them home, and consumers should be given the opportunity to buy the right amount for the right amount of consumption.

Every element of packaging needs to be considered, from the most effective storage and protection both in store and at home, especially during the pandemic where it could help reduce contact and therefore contamination, to ensure that the container can be easily recycled or reused.

We also need to determine what other types of packaging are likely to be used to replace the plastic equivalent. Are we going to start seeing an increase in paper and cardboard packaging? When does the infrastructure exist to handle this increase?

To be truly transformational, we cannot afford to ignore all aspects of the plastic packaging problem – weighing the pros and cons to find solutions that systematically reduce our carbon footprint at every touchpoint.

There is certainly nothing to be gained in the long run by putting in place drastic new laws to “look like” we are doing the right thing when in fact we are fixing one imbalance to cause another one somewhere else.

By Edward Kosior. Articles in English

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