Is plastic waste or food waste a bigger environmental threat?

While whales wash up in the Philippines, victims of plastic pollution, food waste makes fewer headlines. Without packaging, food doesn’t last as long and is thrown away. Without careful disposal, the packaging pollutes. To put this into perspective we need to understand the causes and effects of what we’re doing when we dispose of both. To do that, we looked at current research into the state of plastic and food waste in the United Kingdom.

What is plastic waste?

Plastic is one of the main components of everyday household waste. According to statistics from Our World In Data the world produced 381 million tonnes of plastic in 2015 – about half of it is single use.

Data published in National Geographic by the University of California says 40 percent of plastic is packaging, used once and then discarded. Once the packaging has served its purpose we throw it away. We too now depend on plastic for bags, containers, bottles and even building materials.

How much plastic waste is produced and recycled each year?

According to the research done by the UK’s Retail Institute at Leeds Beckett University, 11.4 million tonnes of packaging is produced each year in the UK alone, however, only 6.8 million tonnes of this packaging is recycled. Recycling in the UK is regulated differently by each council and local authority. Each of these can choose how they recycle their waste.

This is in contrast with more progressive nations such as Sweden. Its national recycling policy and infrastructure is so effective that other countries in the EU send their waste to Sweden to be recycled.

What is the environmental impact of plastic waste?

The environmental impact of plastic waste affects our wildlife most visibly, our ecosystem and our oceans. Plastic trash can be found in the stomachs of more than 90% of seabirds, in more than half of the world’s sea turtles. It suffocates whales and other large sea mammals in their natural habitat.

Plastic is incredibly durable which is why we rely on it so much. This means it can survive even the harshest of conditions, continuing to circle the globe in our oceans. It is estimated that nearly 270,000 tonnes of plastic is floating in our seas and that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.

Plastic use has an impact from the moment it is produced. Most plastics are made out of the hydrocarbons that are found in natural materials such as gas, oil and coal; finite fossil fuels that pollute as they burn.

What infrastructure is in place to recycle plastic waste?

The UK’s decentralised approach to environmental waste has passed the responsibility for recycling onto local councils. While some UK councils recycle glass, plastics, cardboards and tins,  others may not have the infrastructure to recycle some of these materials. In 2017 less than half of all household waste (45.2%) was recycled across the country.

The UK has three different systems in place for recycling. The first is the most familiar to everyone, kerbside collection. This is where local councils provide bin men who on a regular schedule come and collect the areas recyclable waste. This waste is then taken to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) where the waste is hand sorted and moved onto its final destination.

However, poor quality materials, such as wet cardboard or food contaminated plastics, can be moved onto landfill. The second system in place is a series of Household Waste Recycling Centres. These are facilities for communities to bring their own waste to, they are however costly to run and not used as regularly. The most commonly used are “rubbish tips”, which allow members of the public to bring any household waste items to dispose of, including recyclable materials.

What can be done to combat plastic waste?

The UK government is already implementing new schemes to try to cut down on single-use plastics. In 2015 they brought in a 5p levy on plastic shopping bags. A data set produced by the UK Government indicated that seven of the UK’s main retailers issued around 83% fewer carrier bags in 2016 – 2017, that equates to six billion bags.

But what about the contents of packaging – the stuff it’s supposed to protect?

What is food waste?

Food waste is defined as any food, including the inedible parts, that are removed from the food supply chain to be disposed of. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food waste can also be food that is appropriate for human consumption being discarded even if it has expired or spoilt. This is usually due to oversupply or consumer shopping and eating habits.

How much food waste is produced and recycled each year?

Each year a third of the world’s total food intended for humans is wasted or lost throughout the farm to consumer process – about 1.3bn tonnes. According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), only 12% of food waste is recycled each year.

£13 billion pounds worth of food was wasted in the UK in 2015. That’s approximately 7.3 million tonnes. The average UK household lost £470 a year because of avoidable food waste. This contrasts starkly with an increase in food poverty. 8.4 million people in the UK are struggling to afford food. This is the equivalent of the entire population of London. Most of the food that households chuck away is still edible despite sometimes being past its sell-by date.

What is the environmental impact of food waste?

Food waste can harm the environment in different ways to plastic pollution. Food production and distribution requires large amounts of energy and other resources.  83% of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint that comes from food waste is burnt in the manufacturing process, with a further 11% coming from its transport.

In industrialised countries food waste usually occurs in the final stages of production; distribution and consumption. However in developing countries, food waste usually occurs in the first stages of food production. Harvesting, processing and transport suffer due to a lack of agricultural technologies. Other impacts include water scarcity and soil erosion.

When food is wasted, the environmental impact continues. It rots, producing methane. The amount produced is 20 times “more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide“. With greenhouse gas emissions over 20 million tonnes, food waste has a global impact similar to road transport alone.

Food in a landfill breaks down into chemicals that are toxic in the water table, including ammonia.

What infrastructure is in place to recycle food waste?

The recycling sector is tasked with diverting unavoidable food waste from landfill, ensuring it’s used to generate energy and used in compost. According to City AM, in the last 2 years, hundreds of millions of pounds have invested in startups and infrastructure to combat food waste. However, it is unclear what exactly has been achieved with this funding. WRAP states that the UK government want to introduce mandatory separate weekly food waste collections as only half of the councils in the UK currently do this.

What can be done to combat food waste?

Simple things can be done to combat food waste. ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ has started a campaign called “Chill the Fridge Out” advising people to keep their fridges below 5 degrees celsius as this can extend the ‘shelf-life’ by three days minimising food waste in households. They also state that if food waste were a country, it would be the third most polluting country on the planet.

Awareness that the environment is in crisis is increasing and it’s clear to see more people are willing to change their ways to protect the planet – but most of the focus is on what we can see; the tangible waste of plastic in the oceans rather than the hidden impact of food waste.

Ultimately it is difficult to say which of the two problems is greater. The issues are intertwined as plastic packaging is needed to preserve food quality, reducing food waste – but plastic packaging is contributing significantly to global pollution. It’s also clear that packaging isn’t a solution to food waste in and of itself. The problem may be more systemic, and needs to be treated in a holistic and systematic way.

Whether the rest of the world needs to take inspiration from Germany’s Green Dot system or the Swedish ‘Pant system’ or other methods can be created, the bottom line is simple. The issues need to be tackled together otherwise it could be the case of one step forward and two steps back.

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