The plastic vs food waste environmental debate

By: Judy Davie - The Food Coach

It's fairly safe to say that we all agree the world would be a better place without so much plastic, however there is an interesting alternate view about this when it comes to food waste.

Food packaging gives manufacturers an great opportunity to promote their product over others, but it also helps to keep food clean, and in many cases extend its use-by date. According to the UN, about one third of food is wasted between the field and the plate. Globally, greenhouse gas emissions from food waste are higher than those of India, once everything that was required to produce the food in the first place (water, fertiliser, fuel etc) is taken into account.

Vacuum packed meat, wrapped in plastic prevents its oxidation and extends its lifespan a further 3 to 4 days compared to the 2 - 3 days lifespan of exposed meat behind a refrigerated counter. The same is true with some vegetables; plastic wrapping increases shelf life. The life of a continental or Telegraph cucumber is extended a further 6 days when it's shrink-wrapped in plastic.

So what's better, losing fresh produce to food waste and the subsequent carbon dioxide and methane gases it produces when it breaks down, or wrapping it in plastic?

The ideal solution would be to find another way to prevent oxidation and extend shelf life that doesn't involve using a substance that will never - ever - break down. Ultimately we need something that is both biodegradable and reusable. Until then however we need to weigh up the carbon footprint generated to produce food which ends up in landfill and the impact of plastic which ends up in landfill.

Which has the greater impact?

With meat the answer is pretty clear. According to estimates, for every tonne of packaging, the equivalent of between one and two tonnes of carbon dioxide is released. For every tonne of food wasted, the equivalent of more than two tonnes of carbon dioxide is emitted. ( Source: The Economist)

With vegetables, continental cucumbers and fresh cut salads are the main lines which - for now anyway - have to be wrapped in plastic to stay fresh.

So is this a case of damned if you do damned if you don't?

Personally I don't think so. For some time I've talked about earning domestic carbon credits to allow us to reduce our carbon footprint at home and earn "carbon brownie points" which allows us to buy plastic wrapped Telegraph cucumbers and cut salad greens without guilt.

Here are some suggestions on how you can earn domestic carbon credits.

  • Reuse the plastic bags from fresh produce from one week to the next.
  • Eat less meat.
  • Invest in a worm farm for all your organic food waste.
  • Plan your meals and shop to the plan so you only buy what you need and not too much of it.
  • Switch off the air conditioning. Open doors and windows to allow air flow.
  • Use fresh produce bags for most produce in the fridge
  • Store most fruit and veg in the fridge - allow fruit to reach room temperature before eating for maximum flavour.

    If you have more ways to earn carbon credits at home we'd love to hear from you.


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