There’s something not quite right about seeing produce which is planted, grown and nurtured in mother nature, tightly wrapped in plastic packaging for our convenience on supermarket shelves. The amount of plastics generated by supermarket outlets is astounding. Everything from meat, fish, dairy and many fruits and vegetables are encased in plastic. Why?
Our Plastic Problem
We as humans have generated 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic on this earth. 6.3 billion.
Only 9% of this has been recycled and 11% has been incinerated, leaving 80% of all plastic ever generated, deposited into landfill. That’s 5 billion tonnes of plastic polluting our natural environment (1). Filling our oceans and waterways.
As Australians we contribute over 1 tonne of plastic waste to the earth, per minute. That’s over 660,000 tonnes per year. Even though we all have our yellow recycling bins, only 20% of our household plastic waste is recycled (2). We can all do better in some way or another.
The "Plastic" Bag Ban
The recent plastic bag ban at Coles and Woolworths has eliminated single use plastic bags, as they’re now seen as a commodity rather than an endless free supply. And yes, it’s encouraging to see people become more open to the idea of sustainable shopping and reducing personal waste. However, it’s discouraging to see someone with a reusable shopping tote quickly scooping up a plastic bag filled with a few carrots, for convenience. And often you don’t even have the choice.
The sheer scale of supermarket plastic packaging is astounding. Apples, bananas, cucumbers, potatoes and oranges - all sold in pre-packaged plastic and styrofoam containers. The big supermarkets use of plastic is driven by their relentless quest to extend shelf life and more recently, focus on selling single meal portion sizes.
The smaller the purchase, the more trips to the supermarket you’re likely to take.
The Quest to Extend Shelf Life
Extending shelf life = increased supermarkets profitability.
The longer a fresh or packaged product can survive, the longer the window it can sell for, generating more revenue for the supermarkets. The problem with this practice lies in its structure. The key to extending shelf life is preventing or limiting oxygen from reaching the produce. Plastic does a pretty good job of this.
Oxygen causes spoilage by enhancing the growth of micro-organisms whilst also oxidising enzymes which are naturally present in fruit and vegetables (Part of the natural process of fruit ripening). When the apple you’ve cut cut open is brown inside, or the soft pear you’ve just bitten into has a funky flavour, oxidation is at work. When you find that steak at the back of your fridge has an off smell. Also natural oxidation.
According to the plastic industry, the use of vacuum wrapping with Polyethylene and Styrofoam packaging will extend the shelf life of meat up to 10 times longer than store wrapped meat. Instead of lasting a couple of days in your fridge, plastic packaged meat is said to have a shelf life of 21 days, or more, without natural discolouration or oxidisation.
The argument made by both the supermarket and plastics industry is that by extending the shelf life of food, they are limiting food waste and keeping food "fresher". Although food waste is a major sustainability issue, these same supermarkets and retailers send 170,000 tonnes of food waste to landfill annually (3). As for the "fresher for longer" justification, it's not truly fresh anymore.
It is fresher looking for longer.
What ever happened to good old fashioned, waxed butchers paper?
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(1) Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, Kara Lavender Law. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances 19 Jul 2017:Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782;
(2) Craig Reucassel. War on Waste, Australian Broadcasting Commission TV, Episode 1&2
(3) Craig Reucassel. War on Waste, Australian Broadcasting Commission TV, Episode (1 &2)