Food waste fabrications? WRAP claims plastic packaging can increase fresh produce spoilage
25 Feb 2022 --- The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) claims to have proven that plastic packaging doesn’t necessarily prolong the life of uncut fresh produce and can actually increase food waste. The resource efficiency organization has called for an end to unnecessary plastic packaging and Best Before labels on a wide range of fresh uncut fruit and vegetables in the UK.
WRAP says evidence shows that selling fresh produce loose and removing date labels could prevent 14 million shopping baskets worth of food from going to waste and 1,100 rubbish trucks of avoidable plastic simply by allowing people to buy what they need.
“This important research could be a game-changer in the fight against food waste and plastic pollution,” says Marcus Gover, WRAP’s CEO. “We have demystified the relationship between wasted food, plastic packaging, date labels and food storage.”
“While packaging is important and often carries out a critical role to protect food, we have proven that plastic packaging doesn’t necessarily prolong the life of uncut fresh produce. It can in fact increase food waste in this case. We have shown the massive potential to save good food from being thrown away by removing date labels.”
However, critics have suggested that the report’s scope is limited and fails to fully appreciate the key role packaging can play in increasing fresh produce shelf life.
Edward Kosior, UK recycling expert and Nextek founder, agrees that packaging should not be used to cluster items together, but argues the research’s focus is limited to a small number of fruit and vegetables.
“It is difficult to draw conclusions from the report as the likes of salads and cut fruits and vegetables are not mentioned, which most definitely do benefit from protective packaging. While apples, bananas, potatoes and onions don’t need the protection of plastic packaging, the humble cucumber is one that has been proven to reduce food loss and waste thanks to a thin plastic sleeve.”
Goodbye to Best Before
WRAP tested five commonly wasted items (apples, bananas, broccoli, cucumber and potatoes) stored in the original packaging and loose and at different temperatures. The charity found that selling the five products loose and removing Best Before dates could result in a combined saving of around 100,000 metric tons of household food waste, more than 10,300 metric tons of plastic and 130,000 metric tons of CO2e.
This saving comes from enabling people to buy the right amount for their needs (potatoes, bananas and apples) and to use their judgment to decide when items are still good to eat.
Helen Bird, strategic technical manager for plastics at WRAP, tells PackagingInsights that these recommendations are made with food safety as a priority. “The Best Before date is purely a quality marker, and it’s perfectly safe to eat food after that date has passed,” she says.
“WRAP also encourages the redistribution of surplus food from retail, manufacturers and the hospitality sector beyond the Best Before date and has published guidance to make this easier.”
“We recommend people at home use their own judgment with Best Before dates. The Use By date is important as that is a food safety marker and people should never consume food that has passed the Use By, as advised by the Food Standards Agency.”
Bird adds that there is no legal requirement to have a date label on fresh uncut produce.
However, Kosior maintains Best Before dates on fresh produce do not necessarily convince consumers to disregard edible items. “The report talks about the sell-by date, which may or not make people throw perfectly healthy foods, but that is a debatable question – surely if someone is holding a healthy looking tomato they will not get rid of it because it has passed its sell-by date,” he argues.
A chilling opportunity
The research also examined the influence of storage temperatures on food going to waste, confirming that most items last longer in the fridge. When stored at 4°C, apples, for example, showed no signs of deterioration until two and a half months after their Best Before date and were still good to eat for some time after that. Broccoli showed no signs of deterioration until more than two weeks after the Best Before date.
WRAP is now calling on the UK’s major retailers to rethink how they sell uncut fresh produce with three key recommendations:
- Sell loose – where possible, unless it is shown that plastic packaging reduces overall food waste.
- Remove date labels – unless it can be shown that a Best Before reduces overall food waste.
- Refrigerate below 5°C at home – help customers understand the benefits of storing appropriate fresh produce in the fridge, set at the right temperature.
While most supermarkets already sell some items loose, WRAP indicates the new research presents compelling evidence for significantly increasing the practice across a wide range of fresh fruit and vegetables.
France’s plastic ban
Meanwhile, France recently imposed a plastic packaging ban on 30 different fruits and vegetables in a move that divided opinion. Zero Waste France argued that the ban’s exemptions “greatly lessen the law’s ambition” while others pointed to potential food waste increases.
When asked whether the UK should implement similar regulations, Bird affirmed this is a decision for the government, while The Courtauld Commitment 2030 and The UK Plastic Pact were established to maximize what progress could be achieved quickly through voluntary means.
“Under The UK Plastics Pact, we have prioritized 24 types of fruit and vegetables, which should be prioritized for the packaging to be removed. These are all items sold unpackaged by at least one major supermarket,” she explains.
“Most are also items with significant opportunity to reduce food waste by enabling people to buy the right amount or are peelable items and therefore hygiene concerns are less. However, this will take time and there will be challenges to overcome.”
“We want the supermarkets to sell the whole crop and packaging is sometimes used to distinguish different lines – wonky, for example. We do not believe the challenges to be insurmountable and that lessons can be learned across the supermarkets – that is why our next step is to bring the retailers together to support implementation.”
The plastics purge
WRAP also published an updated list of key plastic items for UK Plastics Pact members to remove by the end of 2022. The additional items are:
- Plastic wrapping for multi-sales of tins, bottles, and cartons
- PVC cling film
- Non-compostable fruit and veg stickers
- Non-compostable tea and coffee bags
- Single-use/single-serving plastic sachets/jiggers in restaurant settings
As a longer-term goal, the organization calls on members to eradicate plastic packaging for uncut fresh fruit and vegetables unless demonstrated to reduce food waste.
Since The Pact was launched in 2018, members have reported 46% progress in reducing specific problematic plastic items and a 10% reduction in plastic packaging overall.
“We are all living with the reality of the climate emergency and the rising cost of living. This new clarity could not be more timely. We need retailers to step up and follow our recommendations to achieve real progress in tackling food waste and plastic pollution. This helps save the planet and money at the same time – a real win-win,” concludes Gover.
WRAP wants to see the removal of more unnecessary and problematic single-use plastic items under The UK Plastics Pact, including wrapping on multipacks of tinned food and sauce sachets in restaurants.
By Joshua Poole
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