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Retailers are starting to get the message that consumers want less plastic waste from food packaging

4 min read

Conservative MP for St Austell and Newquay Steve Double writes following a debate that he led this week in Westminster Hall on e-petition 222715 relating to plastic-free packaging for fruit and vegetables. 

There is no doubt that plastic pollution is one of the biggest global environmental challenges of our time.

The majority of single-use plastics, which include non-recyclable and non-biodegradable plastic packaging found in shops and supermarkets, are disposed of within minutes of being used.

Every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans. Every piece of plastic can take decades or longer to degrade and will simply break down into smaller and smaller particles.

When plastic enters the ecosystem, where it has the potential to kill seabirds, fish and animals through ingestion, releasing harmful toxins as the plastic breaks up.

It is estimated that there are now around 5 trillion macro and micro plastic pieces floating in our ocean, with a weight of over 250,000 tonnes. Scientists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans.

The amount of plastic entering our oceans is now a matter of huge concern for many. So it is little wonder that more than 123,000 people have signed an e-petition calling for supermarkets to offer an option of no packaging or eco-friendly packaging for each item of fresh fruit and vegetables they sell.

The petition rightly points out that as consumers as it is incredibly difficult to buy food products without any plastic packaging, especially in the fruit and veg isles.

The majority of single-use plastics used in supermarket packaging are disposed of within minutes of being used.

Their impact on the environment is staggering: plastic packaging from supermarkets accounts for well over half of all UK household plastic waste.

Although some plastic packaging is necessary for prolonging the produce’s shelf life and keeping it clean for consumption, there are many instances in which it is simply unnecessary to wrap fruit and veg in plastic, or where plastic is used not to keep the product fresh but for the supermarket’s convenience in transport and display. In those cases, a lot more could be done to reduce the amount of plastic packaging.

As much as it is possible, we want to give consumers a choice of plastic free packaging produce.

Ultimately, we need to strike the right balance between food wastage and plastic pollution. We do not want our desire to decrease plastic packaging to create another problem by increasing the amount of food waste produced.

This is where innovation and other types of packaging that can protect and preserve our food should be encouraged.

Lidl for example, has announced that it would replace non-recyclable black plastic packaging on fruit and vegetable products with alternative packaging, while Morrisons has said it would be bringing back traditional brown paper bags to the fruit and vegetables isles.

Over the weekend, Thorntons Budgens became the first independent supermarket in the country to introduce plastic-free aisles, and they are now calling on others to follow its lead.

These are positive signs that retailers are starting to get the message that consumers want less plastic waste from their food packaging.

Consumer choice will continue to be the main driving force for change. But the government also has a role in nudging people towards making the right choices, as in the case of the 5p plastic bag charge, which has led to a significant reduction of plastic bag usage since its introduction.

In response to a parliamentary debate on the e-petition earlier this week, Government ministers have said that they are working with retailers and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to encourage their efforts to reduce waste and to explore the introduction of plastic-free supermarket initiatives in which fresh food is sold loose. Further to this work, WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have published their Plastics Pact with support from the government and 80 businesses, NGOs and service providers. The Pact aims to make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Steve Double is the Conservative MP for St Austell and Newquay

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