Marc Bolland: When food packaging can reduce climate change gases

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The Independent Online

The Independent has long campaigned to reduce packaging around food. While the food and drink sector has made real strides, we accept there is a lot more to do.

With landfill sites rapidly running out and the urgent need to combat climate change, there can be no let-up in the campaign to reduce or recycle packaging.

But as the Indy has also recognised, it is not just packaging waste which gets buried. In fact, our industry and consumers together throw away more food than we do packaging. And this waste is more damaging, in many ways, to the environment than plastic or paper wrapping of which 60 per cent is now recycled.

The Government's own Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP) estimates that growing, producing, transporting and storing the 6.7 million tones of food we then throw away at home is equivalent to 2 per cent of the UK's CO2 emissions. Food waste in general produces three times as much carbon as packaging waste.

When dumped into landfill sites, still the final destination of the majority of food waste, it also rots and gives off methane. It's a gas which is 23 times as damaging in accelerating climate change as the equivalent amount of CO2. This all helps explain why WRAP say ending food waste would have the same impact on the UK's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as taking one in five cars off the road.

It is not just, of course, a cost to the environment. It's bad for our pockets as well as the planet. Throwing away food adds over £600 a year to the average family budget. It's also a largely avoidable cost. Most food is discarded without ever being used simply because it is stored incorrectly or for too long.

That's why the debate on packaging can't be isolated from our efforts to cut the mountains of food waste. Sensible packaging helps protect food from damage and last longer. It's no good cutting packaging if the result is more food thrown away.

This requires us to look at packaging on a product-by-product basis to see whether it is necessary or can be reduced or removed. This is what we are now doing at Morrisons through our Keep It Fresh test and packaging laboratory.

It is research which has already thrown up some fascinating insights. We have found, for example, that wrapping peppers in plastic has no impact on freshness or quality so we have stopped doing it. But wrapping cucumbers in recyclable plastic - a target for anti-packaging campaigners - means they last five times as long.

Selling cucumbers without plastic would lead to a slight reduction in packaging. It would, however, lead to a big increase in cucumbers thrown away both by stores and consumers.

We also know that keeping potatoes loose rather than bagged leads to a 3 per cent increase in waste as exposure to the light encourages green shoots and discolouring. Selling grapes in trays cuts in-store waste alone by as much as 20 per cent.

This doesn't mean we have to stop the drive to reduce packaging. It does mean we have to distinguish between the packaging which protects food and that which is unnecessary.

Reducing the size of waste food mountains, of course, requires the industry to continue to change the way we operate. But the responsibility of supermarkets like ours goes beyond what we do ourselves. We also have to help consumers understand better how to keep and store food so they can reduce waste and their household bills.

That's why we have launched a 'Great Taste Less Waste' campaign in our stores. It includes Best Kept stickers on fresh food which explains the latest advice.

We need to help the two-third of consumers who don't realise that apples stay fresh for up to 14 days longer if kept in a fridge. When WRAP estimate that 4.4 million apples are thrown away every day, getting this message across helps both consumers and the environment.

We can do more as well to help consumers plan their shopping wisely so they need to throw less food out and end confusion between 'best by' and 'use by' dates. Half of all consumers admit they throw food away when it reaches 'best by' date.

But that's unnecessary. Food past its 'use by' date shouldn't be eaten, but food which has reached its 'best by' date is safe to eat. It merely suggests a date when food might begin to lose its quality.

No matter how careful we all are, there is always going to be some waste. We have to ensure less of it is buried. In some of our European neighbours, over 20 per cent of energy comes from technology such as anaerobic digestion but just 2 per cent here in the UK. But to help consumers recycle food waste, we need a better national infrastructure for collection and ensure it is used productively.

None of this means we should let up on the drive to reduce unnecessary packaging. But we have to ensure that this worthy goal does not accidentally add to the mountains of food waste we still throw away.

* Marc Bolland is chief executive of Morrisons