While plastic overuse has come at a huge environmental cost, plastic has also enabled many important accomplishments: it allows safe drinking water in places where none exists, enables the sanitary standards of modern medicine, and makes vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient. At Apeel Sciences, we are keenly aware that some types of single-use plastic preserve food in a way that reduces food waste, a huge environmental problem that we seek to address as part of our mission.
Balancing the tradeoffs between plastic waste and food waste is neither an easy, nor a clear-cut choice. Food waste remains a persistent, global issue, while plastic has invaded every aspect of modern life. Single-use plastics that promote convenience and can prevent food waste nevertheless end up in the environment, with devastating negative impacts. The world demands innovative solutions that can tackle both problems at once.
Let’s start with how we got here. It’s hard to imagine, but less than a century ago, the world was free of plastic. From its popular introduction in the 1950s, plastic use exploded and has served in many ways as an ideal material for numerous industries. Lightweight, durable, and relatively cheap to make, today we produce plastic at a faster rate than ever: nearly 350 million metric tons per year. A petroleum based product, plastic production requires an energy-intensive process that consumes fully 8% of the global oil supply.
While plastic can be seen as essential for modern life, serious environmental challenges are arising as we rapidly increase its use without a commensurate ability to recycle it. Given that much of the plastic we make is only intended to be used once, plastic waste and associated plastic pollution is staggering. Although some plastics are recyclable, scientists estimate that only 9% of all plastics ever produced have been recycled. What isn’t recycled persists as non biodegradable material in a landfill, or worse yet, ends up polluting land or aquatic ecosystems. A mind-boggling 8 million metric tons of plastic waste ends up in the oceans every year, where it can harm marine animals and impact ecosystems. Over time, plastic items breakdown into smaller pieces called micro-plastics, which have been found in the deepest parts of the seafloor, on the most remote beaches in the world, and even in the digestive systems of multiple types of fish (National Geographic).
Growing public awareness of such problems has spurred efforts to reduce plastic use, especially single-use items such as plastic bags. More than 60 countries have recently placed taxes or bans on some plastic products in an effort to reduce waste. In addition, many of the companies responsible for the plastic products that litter our oceans and beaches are working to reduce their plastic use, or are setting ambitious targets to do so.
Even with reduction goals in place, plastic remains an essential input for many products, including food, since packaging is required for so many common grocery items. Boxes group small fruits, such as berries and grapes, into easy-to-carry items. Bags provide standardized amounts of apples, lemons, or limes and provide an opportunity for companies to communicate detailed marketing information about their products. Wraps and films coat cucumbers, potatoes, and even bananas to extend produce shelf life multiple days beyond what’s possible without packaging. Despite all these practical uses, major retailers, such as Kroger, Trader Joes, and Aldi have all committed to reducing plastic packaging, including a commitment to reduce plastic in the produce section.
Photo via WikiCommons
Yet, it’s important to remember a surprising fact: by extending product shelf life, plastic can play an important role in reducing food waste. In fact, plastic packaging that maintains the freshness of produce may offer environmental benefits that outweigh the costs associated with plastic waste. Studies have shown that the environmental impact of wasted food can be much larger than the impact of the food’s plastic packaging.
Food waste is also a challenge of global proportions. One third of all food intended for human consumption is lost or wasted, which results in an unnecessary 4.4 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and $1 trillion in direct economic costs. Fully 45% of produce goes to waste from farm to fork. Food waste-focused nonprofit, ReFed, lists “spoilage prevention packaging” as one solution on it’s “Roadmap to Reduce US Food Waste. In a recent article, ReFED Stakeholder Engagement Director Jackie Suggett stated:
“At a time of demonizing individual materials and packaging, when complete bans are being considered as a viable solution, this is a reminder to us all that we aren’t playing a game of absolutes, and we aren’t operating in isolation. An issue of packaging is an issue of food waste, and an issue of food waste is an issue of hunger and food availability — we need to find and focus on the balance.”
It’s true: environmental problems are rarely black and white, and the tradeoff between plastic waste and food waste is one example. The method to prioritize one over the other is not clear, and either choice results in environmental consequences. Fortunately, Apeel Sciences has the rare opportunity to provide a “win-win” solution, and could render the plastic waste vs. food waste debate obsolete. Apeel’s plant-derived coating has been shown to extend shelf life as effectively as shrink-wrap plastic on Long English Cucumbers. Given that fact, we just announced a plastic-free cucumber partnership with Houweling’s that will reduce plastic use by over 60,000 pounds each year and go on sale in 2020. Considering Apeel’s ability to extend shelf life of produce ranging from avocados to limes, cucumbers are just the beginning.
We’re excited for this chance to start fighting plastic waste, one freed cucumber at a time. We’re going to keep looking for more opportunities to provide innovative solutions where none existed before, and to turn a tough tradeoff decision into a clear win-win choice for people and planet.