We’re wrapping and packing too much of our food with the wrong things, and dumping too much of that into the environment. Time for drastic change, say Dennis Wesselbaum and Ingrid Mödinger

Packaging is a pervasive feature of purchasing and consuming food. It ensures the quality of the food we consume during storage and transport and reduces food waste. As well, packaging is designed to minimise bacterial growth and to keep food fresh and safe.

Often plastic packaging is used, because it is light, flexible, and strong, making it a versatile product with numerous applications.

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Overall, food packaging is an important factor in the food supply chain. However, food packaging leads to an increasingly large amount of waste. To be precise, according to the NZ Packaging Council, we consume 735,000 tonnes of packaging and send 352,000 tonnes of waste to landfills each year. Worldwide about 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic were produced over the past 70 years with single-use packaging being the most significant sector.

Waste itself and the poor waste-management strategies we currently use in Aotearoa New Zealand, generate various adverse effects. These effects not only impact the environment and wildlife but can also affect human health. For example, microplastic ingestion has been shown to have adverse health effects.

Waste management is typically done by a combination of practices such as landfilling, incineration, or recycling. Landfilling has become a less preferred option over time due to scarcity of land and the release of toxic chemicals which contaminate air, soil, and water. Similarly, incineration leads to atmospheric release of hazardous chemicals and creates hazardous air pollution.

What can be done to reduce the size and the impact of the waste problem in Aotearoa New Zealand? The most promising way to reduce the problem is to use so-called “source reduction”. Source reduction means preventing waste in the first place or to reduce the toxicity of the waste. This includes redesigning packaging, using different materials, and adjusting the manufacturing process.

Examples of source reduction include lightweighting, i.e. reducing the weight of packaging and hence the amount or types of materials they require. One could also use non-toxic materials such as biodegradable polymers, e.g. cellophane, but these require commercially compostable disposal facilities to be available and hardly any of these exist in Aotearoa New Zealand. Finally, similar to the ban on single-use plastic bags, other single-use items such as takeaway packaging should be banned, and readily available reuse schemes should be put in place.

Importantly, policymaking must make recycling more accessible – e.g. by increasing the number of accepted items –, consistent across Councils, and should develop soft plastic recycling schemes. Further, policymakers should focus on commercially compostable facilities and should add a collection for compostable components, like food scraps and commercially compostable packaging, in order to prevent these from going to landfills.

Along this line, we have to ensure consumers are “waste literate” and understand how to reduce waste and how to recycle and reuse. A related strategy is to set incentives to consumers to encourage them to generate less waste and to increase recycling, reusing and composting. For example, in the United States the Environmental Protection Agency uses a pay-as-you-throw system which charges for waste services based on how much waste is generated.

In conclusion, in our consumption-based economy, we need to develop new and creative waste management solutions and we need policymakers to support these initiatives with financial resources and laws and regulation. We need to drastically change the way we generate, collect, treat, and dispose our waste in order to protect our environment, wildlife, and health.

This piece was co-authored by Dr Dennis Wesselbaum – senior lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Otago, and his partner Ingrid Mödinger, an instructional design lead at Education Perfect and Co-Founder of Nomad.

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