Plastic packaging in the environment

Concerns with regard to the disposal of packaging waste together with a growing awareness of the volume of untreated waste have created a great deal of public debate and media attention. Without doubt, the packaging industry has been slow to respond to a problem that was highlighted by activists years ago. Customers are rightly very concerned over packaging waste and are keen to see less packaging used around the products that they purchase.

Many food kitchens and caterers are finding that customers are becoming more demanding and less tolerant of packaging products based on misinformation of the uses and benefits of common packaging products. While the initial customer reaction is negative the opportunity to engage with your customers on packaging issues shows that you are listening to their concerns and can answer some of the common questions.

Customers are right to be concerned about the amount of packaging waste washing around in the seas today, as highlighted in the recent Planet Earth BBC series. The question is; what are the alternatives?

Plastics and the ocean

Firstly, it should be pointed out that most of the waste in the oceans is plastic packaging. This waste may consist of plastic film, bottles, trays and bags, and will also comprise of fishing nets and industrial plastics. Worse still will be the plastic microbeads and filaments almost invisible to the naked eye. So called bio-plastics will also be included in this waste as they do not disappear in sea water.

Across the globe some 300 million tonnes of plastics are made each year, however only about 10% of that  is recycled. Scientists have calculated that over 24,000 tonnes of plastic are consumed by marine life every year, which is not only harmful for the animals, but enables some of this plastic to re-enter the human food chain.

The first major type of plastic was Bakelite which received its first patent in 1909. While Bakelite is not oil-based it will still be around in waste tips from over a century ago. Since the 1930’s plastic has been mainly manufactured from oil and its  use has spread across the globe and all societies. Six percent of global oil production is used for the manufacture of plastics. Possibly the worst type of plastic contamination is the abundance of plastic filaments in the world’s drinking water. Tests on tap water across the globe in 2011 found plastic present in most drinking water. In the USA 94% of the samples had plastic present, in Europe it was 72% and in India 82% of samples.

A societal change

Many of the facts in this article will cause concern to consumers and rightly so, however they can be verified. The problems caused by plastics can no longer be ignored,  it is clear that we must both reduce our use of plastics and remove the existing plastic waste from the environment. There is no quick route to using up the world’s waste plastics but despite the views of some environmentalists, I would suggest that the most efficient method would be to burn the waste plastic in an energy-from-waste facility. Modern energy-from-waste (EfW) plants produce power which can be added to the national grid whilst removing difficult plastic pollutants from the environment permanently. Whilst the thought of combustion will give some environmentalists concern, modern energy-from-waste facilities can filter out and capture the combustion pollutants from the plastic feedstock, massively reducing overall contamination in our environment. It should also be noted that heavily contaminated mixed plastics cannot be recycled in a cost-effective manner.

Having discussed the ongoing problems around plastic waste there is still a place for plastic in catering. If we can consider plastics in shades of good or bad there is an argument that of the seven common types of plastic, two types are less damaging to the environment. Most plastic containers will have a number 1-7 on them denoting their plastic type. Number 4 is Low Density Polythene (LDPE) and number 5 is Polypropylene (PP). LDPE is a mono-polymer which it is commonly found in milk cartons, lining paper cups and in bread bags, PP is commonly used in yoghurt pots and food containers. Both of these plastics are known to have very low levels of toxicity and recycle easily.

Whether in the catering kitchen or at home,  it’s everybody’s responsibility to work to reduce the impact that plastic pollution can have on the environment and setting the standard in professional kitchens is a great way to start.

John Haken, director at at packaging supply specialist WF Denny

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