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The Single Use Plastic Problem 

Pollution Solutions that Don’t Risk our Food System

Could our current food system survive without plastics? The short answer is, no. Both environmentalists and agricultural experts agree, there is not a feasible way to completely eliminate plastic from our food systems without increasing either another type of pollution or food waste. And yet, single use plastics have been dubbed a global crisis.

Consumers have long been encouraged to reduce their use of single use plastics, and we’ve often wondered if that alone would put a dent in the plastic problem. After all, we’ve become reliant on plastics at every point along our supply chains. The packaging for seeds and fertilizers, machinery parts, ground cover for planting crops, the crates, containers, and wrapping used in harvesting and transporting food, and the very cans, boxes and bottles on grocery store shelves all incorporate plastic. Buy your milk in a glass bottle; the milking process relied on plastic for sanitation purposes. Only purchase package free vegetables; the farmer likely used plastic sheets of mulch to deter weeds.

Measuring the Impact of Plastic

While we are all aware that plastics are causing problems in our oceans and rivers, seeping into our bodies causing health issues, and currently make up a significant percentage of landfills, the cost associated with not using plastic could be far worse.

Plastic keeps freight costs low while our food makes its way from farm to store. We could use glass. It’s endlessly recyclable and we’d worry less about chemicals permeating our food.  But, it’s also heavier and requires significantly more fuel to transport along supply chains. A plastic two-liter bottle weighs 40g while a glass one weighs closer to 800g. Switch all those, juice, soda-pop and water bottles, every container in the dairy aisle, and most of the condiment aisle over to glass and the freight charge just increased by 95%! Not to mention the added fuel emissions from all those extra truck and boat trips.

It also keeps perishable food fresher for longer. Much of what we purchase at the supermarket would not be available without plastic.  Very perishable food options like asparagus, berries, and green beans would not make it to grocery stores world wide. Consumers would eat only what could be grown locally. Without plastic, urban areas would feel a significant impact on food options.

Fewer food options is a discomfort that might sound worth it to many if it means decreasing plastic pollution; however, the scenario would actually hurt systems that protect food security. Already an estimated one-third of food that is produced is wasted because it goes bad before it is able to make it into the kitchen of a consumer, while at the same time, roughly 800 million people do not have enough food to eat. Like it or not, plastic has played a very big part in giving more people access to more food, and it continues to play a part in developing food security here in the United States and in developing countries. 

According to many studies, wasted food has a far more negative impact on the environment than plastic if one considers all of the energy that goes into producing a banana that goes uneaten. Wasted food is then a drain on many resources.  Plastic has become the most efficient option as it keeps production costs lower and food fresher.  As emerging nations continue to grow, the demand for plastic is also expected to increase.

What is the Future of Plastic?

Globally, plastic pollution is at the top of climate consideration talks. The United States, Japan and the E.U. have ambitious plans to end the plastic problem by 2040 with “legally binding provisions to restrain and reduce the production and consumption” of plastics. A coalition of countries met in April to discuss options for tracking and managing plastic from when and how it is produced, to how it is used and disposed of.

Many corporate companies have already given their single use plastic packaging a makeover. Evian recently launched a new sticker free water bottle design, and Kellogg has worked to redesign granola bar packaging in order to reduce single use plastic waste. Pepsi, Walmart and more than 200 other companies have inserted themselves into the sustainability dialogue around plastic and pollution. Many of these companies are open to phasing out product packaging and adhering to realistic product caps to avoid waste for the sake of reducing their emissions.

On the plastic production side, petrochemical producers argue that caps on their end would only increase consumer prices. They point to innovation in waste management and recycled plastic for fuel as being realistic steps to decreasing pollution and maintaining secure food systems. AI could be the driving force as it is already allowing for faster data collection, suggesting new formulas and making the developmental processes in these sectors much faster.

The overarching theme is consumerism. In all the good that plastic has done to deliver food safely to the masses, it has also managed to play a big role in the growing consumerism mindset. Most Americans don’t give extra thought to what happens to the bag of plastic trash they haul out to their dumpster.  And in a way, how can they? It’s virtually impossible to go plastic free even for those who want to. To the average citizen, the situation might be declared a crisis, but the problem of plastic pollution doesn’t seem like such a problem when it delivers both convenience and options.

Is there one point in the chain where we can reduce the use of plastic without jeopardizing food security? Or, is this a system wide situation that needs to be addressed from front to back? Clean water, nutritious food and access to it are all vital to survival and, in some areas, none of this exists without plastic. We know what we need to live, perhaps we need to ask; what can we live without?

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