Boxes, bottles, packets, cartons and cans. TheSite gets all Blue Peter on your ass. Without the sticky-back plastic.
The global food packaging industry is now worth $100bn-a-year, growing 10-15% each year year. Anything between 10% and 50% of the price of food today can be down to its packaging. As the amount of rubbish we produce increases, financial and environmental costs to our world also increase.
How much waste?
According to WasteOnline, UK households produce the equivalent weight of around 245 jumbo jets per week in packaging waste. In fact, 3.2m tonnes of the 26m tonnes of household waste produced annually comes from packaging. Meanwhile, 150m tonnes of packaging waste come from industry and commerce each year.
Here's some number-crunching for you: 11% of household waste in the UK is plastic, 40% of which comes from the 15m plastic bottles we use every day. Only less than 3% of these plastic bottles gets recycled. Also, how much do you value the humble carrier bag? Fewer than 1% of the billions of plastic bags we use each year are recycled, and the majority are used only once.
To achieve a change towards more sustainable packaging, it's not just the packaging that requires alterations but also our lifestyles and habits of consumption. European law wants us to recover 50% of all our packaging and to recycle 25%, but Britain, predictably, is seriously lagging behind.
Why use packaging?
- Packaging provides a physical barrier between a product and the external environment thereby ensuring hygiene and reducing the risk of product wastage due to contamination.
- Some forms of packaging prolong the life of food.
- Some packaging is also needed for safe and efficient transportation.
- Packaging is also used to provide customers with information and instructions, for which there are some legal requirements.
Why so much waste?
- The decrease in the size of households over the decades has resulted in more people buying smaller portions of food, and thus more packaging.
- Higher living standards in the western world have led to more consumer goods and to the transportation of exotic foods over long distances requiring a large amount of packaging to maintain freshness.
- A trend towards urbanisation, which creates longer distances between food producers in rural areas and consumers in urban areas, has also led a demand for packaging.
- Other contributing factors are the increases in working families (i.e. both partners working) along with the increase in fridge and freezer ownership, which has led to a higher demand for convenience food.
Has it all gone too far?
Frankly, yes. Food packaging today is really about marketing, in an increasingly consumer world, food producers care more about competing for shelf-space than environmental consequences, and we, the consumers aren't much better. Do you consider the impact arising from the toxins and pollutants released at every stage in production and transport? Do you think about how long the packaging will take to biodegrade or incinerate, or about how some products are just economically unviable to recycle in rich countries and instead are shipped out to pollute the third world? Probably not, but maybe you should.
The most common types of material used for packaging are paper, fibreboard, plastic, glass, steel and aluminium.
- Paper: One of the most widely used packaging materials, particularly corrugated cardboard used for transport packaging. The current recycling rate for paper and board packaging waste is 49%.
- Glass: This is the most common form of packaging waste. Glass can be returned and re-used or recycled easily and a well-established recovery and recycling system exists in the UK. The first bottle-bank in the UK appeared in 1977 and today there are over 20,000. Six billion glass containers are used annually in the UK and the recycling rate is 22%.
- Aluminium: This is commonly used in packaging, such as drinks cans, foils and laminates. It has a high value as a scrap metal with prices ranging from £650-750 per tonne. It can also be recycled economically - 20 recycled aluminium cans can be made with the energy it takes to manufacture one brand new one.
- Steel: is a widely used packaging material for food, paint and beverage as well as aerosols. Recycling steel brings significant resource and energy savings. The current recycling rate for steel cans is 62%.
- Plastic: offers several advantages over other packaging materials in its sturdiness and low weight. Even though plastic can be recycled there is a lack of facilities in the UK. The current recycling rate for plastic in the UK is 5%, with the remainder either landfilled or incinerated.
- Mixed materials: packaging can sometimes have the benefits of being more resource and energy efficient than single material packaging, but combining materials makes recycling difficult. Recycling these materials is hindered by the lack of facilities and technology necessary to separate materials to avoid contamination. Mixed materials packaging can be reprocessed into other products such as floor coverings, shoe soles and car mats, incinerated to produce energy, or landfilled.
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