Is plastic a 'necessary evil' in our food system?

store display
CC BY 2.0 elmada

Perhaps yes, if our food system stays the way it is, but maybe that's what we should be challenging.

It's not often that I encounter a defence of plastic packaging, so when I realized that was the gist of an op-ed in the Independent, I was curious to see how the writers would handle it.

Both are from Brunel University in London, England; one is studying supply chain management, the other lectures in environmental management. Both view plastic as a 'necessary evil', something that needs to be used more effectively, perhaps more sparingly in some cases, but ultimately should not be gotten rid of entirely.

Their focus is on the food supply chain – specifically, how wrapping food products in plastic helps to prolong shelf life and reduce waste, particularly when so much of what we eat comes from far away and travels by airplane. A cucumber in plastic film can last 14 days as opposed to three, and packaging grapes in plastic has apparently reduced wastage by 20 percent. They cite research suggesting that "the carbon footprint of food waste generated can be higher than that of plastic."

Basically, they argue that if we hope to tackle the enormous problem of food waste, we should stick with plastic, while looking for better ways of using it, such as reusing and biodegrading it. Shortening the supply chain is a worthy goal, as well, but not terribly realistic in their opinion.

This left me feeling uncomfortable. I am an advocate for reducing plastic usage as rapidly and thoroughly as possible. Of course there's a time and place for it – for example, in medical procedures – but I disagree that the food world is one in which we should accept the status quo.

If plastic is needed to preserve food that is being harvested far away and help it to last awhile on our shelves, then perhaps that model is outdated and needs to be reanalyzed, instead of us throwing up our hands and saying plastic is necessary to maintain it.

The authors mention one statistic in passing that I believe is key to the whole issue here: "More than 50 per cent of food waste takes place in households." If that's true, then it's well within our personal control to slash food waste and plastic usage simultaneously. The home front is precisely where we have the most decision-making power regarding food storage and packaging. If anything, I see this as hopeful and entirely doable.

Shortening the food supply chain is an obvious first step, and I believe that most people can do this if they put in some effort. Rural dwellers have access to farmers that can sell food directly and package-free. City dwellers have access to bigger farmers' markets, food co-ops, and package-free bulk stores. Options always exist, once you start digging for them.

This obviously requires adjusting one's diet to fit the seasons, which is a hard reality for some people to accept. No more fresh strawberries or Caesar salads in January, in other words. But this is necessary if we're serious about tackling plastic, as most of the fresh foods transported from far away come in plastic bags, sealed wrap, or clamshell boxes.

Shopping more frequently is another necessary shift. That cucumber mentioned above doesn't need to last 14 days, or even 7 days, in someone's fridge if it's eaten shortly after purchasing. (And if you're like me, you only buy cucumbers for a few months out of the year because they're a hot-weather food.) Better packaging options exist, too, such as beeswax wraps that allow food to breathe naturally and do not smother it in the way that plastic does.

Taking frequent trips to the market or store also reduces the need for plastic-swathed multipacks and the waste that ensues when we pursue a 'deal' too enthusiastically; but no doubt stores could get around that by offering loose clearance bins of imperfect seconds, or something similar.

I don't claim to have all the solutions, but I do find it troubling to assume that, just because plastic has been useful in our food system thus far, it should continue to play a role. Instead, we need to rethink the model that has created such an unhealthy dependence on plastic and ask ourselves how we could do better.

Is plastic a 'necessary evil' in our food system?
Perhaps yes, if our food system stays the way it is, but maybe that's what we should be challenging.

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