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Beating food waste needs plastic — the question is where and when

Plastic, while bad for the environment, is an important tool in the fight against food waste. How do we balance those pros and cons?

Cucumbers in plastic wrap

Shrink-wrapping cucumbers lowering losses due to spoilage at retail by an estimated 4.8 percent. Image via Shutterstock/Sheryl Watson. 


This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

Environmentally minded people struggle when supermarkets offer mostly plastic-wrapped fruits and vegetables. I get that. Plastic is bad. But in conversations around that topic, I like to throw in my nerdy two cents with a different perspective: Plastic packaging can actually be good. Under the right circumstances, it reduces food waste which usually has a much larger environmental footprint than the packaging. 

For example, in the case of cucumbers, a study showed that the packaging only accounted for 1 percent of the total environmental footprint of a cucumber. Each cucumber that lands in the trash because of spoilage would have the same climate impact as the amount of plastic used to wrap 93 cucumbers. The shrink-wrap was effective at preventing such spoilage, lowering losses at retail by an estimated 4.8 percent. 

The authors conclude that "the environmental benefit of food waste reduction due to plastic wrapping the cucumbers was found to be 4.9 times higher than the negative environmental impact due to the packaging itself." It seems like a no-brainer to go for the shrink-wrap.

[Interested in learning more about food waste? Read our coverage here.]

Yet recent findings from a large research program published by British non-profit WRAP come to a different conclusion. WRAP evaluated the impact of plastic packaging on five fruits and vegetables frequently wasted by households: apples; bananas; broccoli; cucumbers; and potatoes. It found that plastic packaging doesn’t reduce household waste for any of the products. 

Why do WRAP’s findings differ? Because it only considers what happens in households, at the end of what’s often a rather long supply chain. On the contrary, the cucumber study above evaluated the impact from farms to supermarket shelves. 

Together, the two studies imply an interesting takeaway: Packaging cucumbers is beneficial on their journey from farms to supermarkets but not necessary after that. This makes me wonder whether more circular packaging solutions would be possible for the first part of their journey. Could they be shipped in reusable, sealed containers? Or plastic wrapped in larger bundles? 

One study found that plastic packaging doesn’t reduce household waste for any of the products. 

Leaving the cucumber conundrum aside, WRAP’s report offers valuable insights and action areas for food manufacturers, retailers and other stakeholders. 

Here are three priority steps: 

  1. Sell loose produce: This way, consumers can buy only what they need. This is especially impactful in the case of apples, potatoes and bananas. 
  2. Do not apply date labels to uncut fresh produce: 8 to 11 percent of people rely mostly or entirely on date labels to determine whether their produce is still good, often throwing away perfectly edible food. 
  3. Provide guidance for at-home storage: Consumers lack education on how to best store food. For example, most people don’t put apples in their fridges. Yet, apples can last almost 70 days longer when refrigerated. The right temperature also matters. Cucumber and broccoli last significantly longer at 39 degrees Fahrenheit compared to 48F.

Successfully implemented, these changes could make a big difference. Food waste makes up 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Much of it is wasted at home — 70 percent in the U.K. and 37 percent in the U.S.

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