Recently, I saw an impassioned post on Twitter that left me in two minds. It went something along the lines of ‘These youngsters, lecturing us about the planet! Back in the 1970s there were no plastic bottles – we had glass bottles that we reused, food was sold loose, and milk was delivered every day.’
I can see the point this person was trying to make, but things weren’t as simple as they make out. Some people say it’s never been so easy to be wasteful, but I would say things today have never been quite so complicated.
Our buying habits were wildly different in the 1970s. People bought local, seasonal food from shops close to where they lived. Options were more limited, and I remember quite boring choices before the arrival of pasta and the avocado. Fast-forward 40 years and the high street is a very different place, while our diets are much more interesting.
Rightly or wrongly, people started to demand more exotic produce, shipped from afar, all year round. They wanted higher-quality food that lasted longer – pineapples on tap and kumquats by the kilo. And with this burgeoning consumerism and the growth of the supermarket came new ways of packaging, selling, and keeping these interesting new foods.
Plastic came of age in the 1970s as a simple, cheap and effective way of keeping food fresh, presenting it attractively and protecting it from damage. So we used it – a lot. We’ve only recently woken from this dream state of unrestrained disposable plastics to realise that our quick, convenient and highly disposable way of life is killing the planet. We need to work out how we balance using plastics beneficially when we must, for example to mitigate food waste, with limiting the amount of plastics that leak into the environment.
At its simplest, plastic protects products during transit, contains loose items and helps preserve some foods for longer. Take the humble raspberry – it’s not a fruit that’s up to the rough and tumble of retail without some form of protection.
Packaging is also a really convenient way to relay important information to us all, helping us keep our food fresher for longer, and making us aware of important details, such as allergen warnings. Labels also tell customers how to handle, store and cook food, which is hugely important for public health and reducing food waste. And secure packaging, plastic or otherwise, means customers can pick up and pay for the correct product, knowing whether it is from the premium or basic range, organic or standard, and so on. These are some of the benefits of packaging we need to consider when we think about removing packaging, and the labelling that goes with it.
Customers pay attention to labels, which influence their habits. It is a fundamental communication for customers, so retailers and manufacturers need to think carefully how they use their labelling systems. Our research shows we need to take packaging and labelling decisions on a case-by-case basis. Removal of packaging must be done carefully to avoid food waste, but should be done where it’s sensible.
Today we are publishing a clear set of six principles that will help retailers limit plastic use, and ensure removal is done in a safe and sustainable way. As well as publishing our Retail Survey, we’re asking retailers to consider these principles before deciding whether to sell their uncut fresh produce loose. The other significant development we recommend is removing ‘best before’ dates from uncut fresh produce where this doesn’t risk increasing food waste – the guidance will help when making this decision.
The presence of a date label – of any type – influences behaviour to some degree and makes people more likely to discard food once the date has passed. Where fresh produce is packaged, the absence of a best before date – on appropriate items – can also help to reduce waste by encouraging people to use their judgement more.
Offering fresh produce loose gives customers the opportunity to purchase the correct amount for their needs. A range of pack sizes and formats, including loose, can help reduce food waste. Single occupancy households, which are on the rise, statistically produce 40% more food waste per person than larger family homes, partly because food is sold in formats too large for their needs.
Our guidance, produced in consultation with the Food Standards Agency and Defra, is designed with these issues in mind. We expect it to help significantly reduce the UK’s annual food waste bill, if correctly implemented. Our latest Retail Survey, published today, is our monitor of how closely retailers and brands adhere to these recommendations.
Going back to where I began, things have changed hugely since the 1970s, and there’s no going back. But there’s a lot more we can do to reduce plastic pollution without increasing food waste. I hope our Retail Survey can contribute to the debate.