The vast majority of plastic is still ending up in the natural environment in spite of widespread concern about its impact, according to Anna Turrell, head of sustainability with Nestlé UK and Ireland – part of the world's largest food and beverage company.
A "systems change" on plastic is needed, backed by coherent regulation with full buy-in from industry, government and society, she told a Food Safety Authority of Ireland conference on plastics in the food sector.
Some 75 per cent of all plastic becomes waste and most ends up in the environment; 90 per cent of which feeds into seas. “For Nestlé, that is not the place to be,” she admitted, “But corporate commitments alone is not going to cut it.”
It was a highly emotive issue which meant companies “are treading a fine wire between science-based solutions and needing to respond quickly to societal demands, which don’t always coincide”.
Difficulties were compounded by the complex variety of plastics being used and a lot of confusion, for instance, about what is biodegradable and compostable. The trend of “light-weighting packaging” meant it had become less recyclable.
Nestlé had committed to help develop the packaging of the future in a waste-free world where problem plastics are eliminated. That included shifting to bioplastics and ending fossil fuel-derived virgin plastic. “We’re committed and investing to deliver 100 per cent recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025 across its vast portfolio of products.”
Given plastics generated from fossil fuels were predicted to increase 20-fold in coming decades, Zero Waste Ireland director Jack O’Sullivan agreed a complete change in how people and industry use plastics was required.
“We have to take a totally different view of plastics – no longer manufacturing it for quick use and to be thrown-away; but either replace plastics entirely with other materials from renewable sources, or manufacture sparingly and efficiently for long-term use and total recycling . . . there are plenty of replacement substitutes which we can make from plant materials which are renewable and recyclable.”
Prof Gordon Chambers of Technological University Dublin: "We have to break society's addiction to single-use plastic to help turn the flow of plastic into the environment off. Secondly, we need to deal with the legacy plastic from yesteryear which is clogging our environment."
While plastic litter degrades over time to produce tiny fragments known as microplastics, which can potentially enter into the foodchain and be subsequently consumed and accumulate in body tissues, there was no evidence of any specific associated health risk. “However, lack of long-term studies on exposure to microplastics represents a significant knowledge gap in our understanding of these tiny entities,” he added.
Pathways for exposure
There were no agreed standards to compare microplastics found in the Indian ocean to those in the Atlantic, while devices were being pushed to their limits in trying get accurate readings. Other pathways for exposure exist such as airborne microplastics, which he believed may be a greater threat to human health.
“Plastic has multiple functions that help tackle a number of the challenges facing our society. However, we need alternative packaging and plastic solutions which can still do what they need to do, but do not negatively impact the environment,” said FSAI chief executive Dr Pamela Byrne
Research was needed into new plastic alternatives which will be complex and take time, as there is no one solution to date, she added. “Packaging for food is a necessity as it is important for food safety and preservation. It also avoids unnecessary food waste and associated carbon emissions.”
Packaging was critical for providing information to consumers on ingredients, allergens, shelf-life and provenance of food, “and vital for regulatory authorities for enforcement and food traceability if there is a food safety issue and a food product needs to be recalled from the market”.