Vital Role of Plastics in Protecting Environment & Reducing Food Waste

Submission Date : 2023-03-06

Vital Role of Plastics in Protecting Environment & Reducing Food Waste

The important role plastic packaging plays not only in preventing food waste, breakage and spoilage, but also ultimately in protecting the environment


Wasted and spoiled food is a growing problem in South Africa and around the world. As our global population continues to grow each year, the available natural resources that are required to produce enough food to feed a hungry population (i.e. water, land, labour and capital) are increasingly diminishing. With approximately one third of the total amount of food produced for human consumption (roughly 1.3 billion tonnes) being lost or wasted annually, we should not only be concerned about the large amounts of money being squandered, but also about the negative impact on the environment.

Anton Hanekom, Executive Director of Plastics SA, stresses the important role plastic packaging plays not only in preventing food waste, breakage and spoilage, but also ultimately in protecting the environment.

"Plastic packaging increasingly answers the multiple needs of modern consumers and their changing lifestyles and demographics by providing information on how to use and store packaged food products, portion sizes, and ensuring food quality and safety along the supply chain and at home".

Hanekom points to various studies and scientific investigations that continue to prove that plastic packaging have a far smaller environmental footprint than other materials with the same or similar purpose.

"Producing plastic packaging requires less energy and generates less waste, with lower carbon emissions in general. However, because it is often lightweight, it tends to float on water and is therefore a more visible pollutant. For this reason, we are relentless in our efforts to prevent the leakage of plastics into the environment through our various clean-up projects and ongoing communication and education campaigns that are aimed at teaching South Africans of all ages and backgrounds the importance of proper waste disposal and the value that can be unlocked through recycling," Hanekom says.

Vital Role of Plastics in Protecting Environment & Reducing Food Waste

Although only 22 % of all locally manufactured plastics products was recycled into new plastics products in 2021, the industry believes that these volumes will increase as it begins to see the impact of these campaigns result in a greater awareness around the need for recycling and communities willingly embracing the benefits of supporting of a circular economy.

Reasons why plastic packaging is sustainable:

  • Plastic packaging saves natural resources: People seldom think about the stresses and strains that a product has to go through before it makes it to the supermarket shelves. Good, protective packaging is vital to protect food during storage and transportation. According to the Industry Council for Research on Packaging and the Environment in the USA, it takes ten times more resources—materials, energy, water—to make and distribute food than are used to make the packaging to protect it. When food is wasted due to spoilage or breakage, we in essence waste ten times more resources than those used to make the packaging that protects it.

  • Plastic packaging reduces carbon emissions. Plastic food packaging can make an important contribution to environmental protection, especially if it is the right packaging for the right application. The results of a study entitled, “Stop Waste – Save Food” published in Europe in 2020 revealed that only 3% of the carbon footprint rests within the packaging, and 97% within the food. This highlights the important role of packaging to ensure that food arrives well protected. This supported earlier studies that showed that packaged fresh goods have a smaller environmental footprint than unpackaged food (even if the packaging is not recycled). Proper packaging results in less greenhouse gas emissions. Even if more packaging is being used, less food is being wasted - leading to a lower overall carbon footprint.

Vital Role of Plastics in Protecting Environment & Reducing Food Waste

Concludes Hanekom: "Plastic packaging helps to protect and deliver food to us safely by providing various barriers to oxygen, light, temperatures, moisture, microbes, contaminants, critters and dirt. In addition, the inherent characteristics of plastic packaging, namely that it is lightweight yet tough, result in a lighter environmental footprint than alternatives. However, as a country and as an industry, we need to continue with our efforts to change the traditional, linear mindsets of “use and dispose” so that we can keep materials in the value chain for as long as possible".

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