Why is there still so much plastic in our supermarkets?

Alice Neville for The Spinoff

OK, so we've got rid of plastic bags. But what about all the other stuff? Phasing plastic packaging out is a mammoth task, but some of the industry's main players are working hard to promote change.

Next time you're at your local supermarket, have a look around. Go up and down each aisle and have a good nosey. How much stuff is in packaging of some kind? Most of it, yes? And now consider this: how much of that packaging is really necessary?

The answer is not as simple as you think. Take a cucumber wrapped in plastic. Ridiculous, right?

Not so, says Paul Evans, CEO of industry body WasteMINZ. "Everyone goes 'this is terrible, it's unnecessary.' But that plastic is necessary to extend the life of the cucumber, shield it from bruises, protect it during transport and keep it safe from contaminants," he says.

"People don't realise that wasting that cucumber is far more environmentally damaging than the bit of plastic around it. It's had water and energy put into it, it's been transported to market – maybe from overseas – so there are emissions associated with it.

"Then when it degrades, it goes to a landfill and creates methane. People go 'oh, it's just a bit of food', but there are impacts associated with that."

It's a small example, but one illustrative of the complexity of the challenge faced by the world as we try to wean ourselves off single-use plastic. It's not as simple as just getting rid of the stuff.

But single-use plastic, as we all should know by now, is a problem. A big problem. In 2017, the first-ever global tally of how much plastic has been produced, discarded, burnt or put in landfills since the mass production of the stuff began 60 years ago came up with this figure: 8.3 billion tonnes.

If that's sobering, consider this: only 9% of it has been recycled. That's right, most of it is still out there in some form – sources vary, but it can take plastic anywhere between 400-1000 years to degrade.

Increasingly, it's in the sea. Each year, 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans and if we carry on at this rate, there will be more plastics than fish in there by 2050. 

It's fair to say it's bad, then. And it's been bad for a while.

"We've had these kind of challenges with regards to waste and recycling for a long time," says Evans. "But because China happily took a whole bunch of our recycling, we could ignore the elephant in the room.

They've now said 'well, we're not going to do that any more' and now the global recycling system is tumbling down."

Evans is referencing a pretty massive spanner thrown in the works when China, which since 1992 had bought 45% of the world's plastic waste and recycled it into new products, said enough was enough.

As of January 1, 2018, it banned imports of plastic waste from other countries. New Zealand had been sending 15 million kilograms of waste to China a year, mainly mixed paper and mixed plastics.

Why is there still so much plastic in our supermarkets?
Photo credit: Newshub.

It was little surprise to those in the know, but for many of us it came as a shock to realise recycling wasn't the silver bullet we'd wanted to believe it was.

"The public have this belief that 'I put it in a recycling bin, my job's done. I've saved the planet," says Evans. "You haven't saved the planet at all, you've just outsourced your problem.

"Recycling is just a slightly better ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, and because it has kind of worked up until now, we've just gone, 'well, that's the easy option, so we'll focus on that rather than going actually further up the waste hierarchy.'"

The ultimate goal, says Evans, should be figuring out how we can avoid making this stuff in the first place and encouraging manufacturers to use recycled content instead.

And that's where packaging manufacturers, food producers, the government, and, yes, supermarkets come in.

"Removing unnecessary packaging is at front of mind in the approaches we have," says Kelly McClean, sustainable packaging project manager at Foodstuffs. "Transitions are going on, but it's not going to be overnight – it's a journey."

The company, which owns New World, PAK'nSAVE and Four Square, was among a group of corporates that last year signed up to the New Zealand plastic packaging declaration, committing to using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or earlier.

Foodstuffs has also developed 10 packaging principles: a live document that's regularly reviewed to ensure the principles align with best practice.

They've already switched from polystyrene meat trays to recyclable plastic ones made with recycled content by Auckland company Alto, but the packaging trail goes far beyond what's visible to shoppers.

The fish sent to stores from market now comes in specially designed recyclable cardboard boxes, and Foodstuffs is currently trialling a different pallet wrap – the stuff that secures boxes of products to pallets for transport to stores.

The new wrap uses a different kind of technology, resulting in using 30% less plastic. The trial is just one of many initiatives Foodstuffs team is keen to glean insights from with the aim of adapting it elsewhere within the business.

But as the cucumber example above illustrates, it's not as simple as we consumers sometimes think. The reason we now have such a big plastic problem is because it does a damn good job, and it's as cheap as chips.

"What plastic does exceptionally well is protect the product and preserve its shelf life," says Mike Sammons, Foodstuffs' sustainability manager. "We have to make sure that by removing packaging or plastic, you're not just creating another problem in that you get food waste."

Why is there still so much plastic in our supermarkets?
Photo credit: Newshub.

Foodstuffs' "Food in the Nude" project is proving successful, however – several New World stores are trialling doing away with virtually all plastic packaging in the fruit and veg aisle. A misting system has been developed to ensure the produce stays fresh. Some New Worlds are also trialling BYO containers for meat and seafood.

Where packaging is necessary, the material of which it's made is very important. Foodstuffs is focusing on fibre-based renewable materials that can be recycled at kerbside or composted at home ('commercially compostable' bioplastics are avoided).

Where plastic is necessary, types 1 and 2 (PET and HDPE), with as much recycled content as possible, are being prioritised.

That's because types 1 and 2 are much easier to manage within the current New Zealand recycling infrastructure. Types 3 to 7 are much more challenging to recycle and also much lower in value, which, coupled with the collapse of the global recycling market, means they've become essentially worthless.

Foodstuffs is now working with suppliers to help them understand why certain plastics are better than others, says Sammons.

"We shared our strategy with our suppliers before Christmas and it came as a bit of a shock when we explained to them that essentially only two types of plastic are now commercially recyclable."

Ultimately, the company will encourage brands to use type 1 and 2 plastics with as much recycled content as possible "but it's certainly not draconian", says Sammons.

"It's about giving people the opportunity to move at the same time as you are. We will be working with them, sharing our learnings with them and giving them a good opportunity to transition across.

"The challenge for suppliers is that they may have invested quite considerable amounts of money in new plants over the last few years that deal essentially only with plastic packaging, and it's just not feasible for them to be able to just change overnight."

Despite our self-belief in a clean, green image, New Zealand lags behind other countries in this respect, says Evans. "In Norway, if you're going to sell a drink bottle it has to be made out of either clear PET or natural HDPE. You can still make it out of that other stuff, but you're going to pay a whopping big tax on it. And you know what? All the manufacturers have gone 'OK, we'll make it out of this, because that makes sense.'"

It's not just those socially progressive Scandinavians, either – even the UK is "light years ahead of us", says Evans. The government there is currently working towards implementing new plastic packaging taxes and tougher rules for packaging producers.

Typically, 100% virgin plastic is used in most consumer packaging because it protects against contamination, adheres to food safety regulations and is easy to transport.

"Suppliers import plastic in, put it into our market and go 'you know what, it's not our problem. We're not closing the loop on our own materials.' Some companies, however, have done a great job prioritising recycled content packaging, like Ecostore and T&G, but others have made no signal whatsoever about using recycled content. This must change if we want to move towards a circular economy and solve this issue."

Evans wants action from the government so companies have little choice but to make better packaging decisions, as well as more education for consumers.

"A lot of people want to do the right thing but they're just bloody confused, because what can be recycled here is different to what can be recycled elsewhere, then there's inconsistency in messaging, and greenwashing is rife."

Conservation minister Eugenie Sage set up a government taskforce in response to the Chinese plastic ban in May last year, but to date, no regulatory action has been proposed. "We need some guidance around where we're going to go, and I guess that's the challenge not only for recyclers but for supermarkets," says Evans.

"Supermarkets can start implementing change and taking initiative – they absolutely can and should – but they need some guidance in answering 'is this the right direction?' Because no one wants to start investing in something and then the government say 'no, we're going a completely different way'."

Consumers have a big part to play too, of course. "We can make sure the right sort of material is going into that recycling system, but we need to make sure it actually gets to recyclers," says Sammons.

"The consumer has a responsibility as well when they're presented with an item that can be recycled to make sure they follow instructions, if it does have them on the packaging, that it goes in the right box, and that it's clean."

That's the big challenge, Evans adds. "There will be the people who are really diligent recyclers and do a great job at this end, then the people down the other end who will never do the right thing, no matter what. They're a relatively small amount. Then there's the whole bunch of people who nominally care but not really care enough to make significant change.

"So how do you make it easy for them? How do you change the social norm? There are a whole bunch of things we used to do that we don't do any more that has changed in a relatively short amount of time," he says, referencing the likes of smoking in workplaces.

Buyer man chooses chicken meat in a shop
Photo credit: Getty.

"There are two parallel paths we have to walk down together as a country: first we have to curb the demand and influx of new plastic into New Zealand, and second we need to encourage manufacturers to use recycled plastic instead."

"We need to start these conversations now so in 10, 20, 30 years we're not still talking about the same old stuff, because that's where we find ourselves with climate change.  We've been talking about climate change for 30 years and we're still talking about it, and plastics is like that. There's a whole lot of inertia there but we do need to do things fundamentally differently. And the sooner we start down that path, the sooner we can.

"New Zealanders do a great job of recycling and doing their bit to reduce packaging and waste, but it's a problem no one can solve alone. We'll only fix this issue if everyone can come together – retailers, suppliers, government, consumers – to identify solutions and change behaviours. It's no longer an 'if', but 'when?'"

This content was created in paid partnership with New World.

The Spinoff

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