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Food Conference Explores Our Use of Plastic Packaging

Thursday, 21 November 2019

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s (FSAI) Food Safety Consultative Council today hosted an open meeting to review and debate the role of plastic in the food sector. ‘Food and Plastic – A Question of Taste?’ provided a platform for experts to debate the use of plastic packaging in the food sector and the changing attitudes towards plastic use. According to the FSAI, current public debate means we are reconsidering our use of plastics which play an important role in the food sector from production equipment to packaging and labelling. Over 150 people attended the open meeting with guest speakers including leading experts from the food industry, academia and environmental sector.

According to Dr Pamela Byrne, CEO, FSAI, global production of plastics has increased twentyfold since the 1960s with some 1.5 million people employed in the plastic sector in Europe and over 25 million tonnes of plastic waste generated every year.

    “Plastic is an important and ubiquitous material in our economy and daily lives. It 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. That means research is needed into new plastic alternatives which will be complex and take time, as there is no one solution to date. 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 is critical for providing information to consumers on the ingredients, allergens, shelf-life and provenance of food and it is 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,” said Dr Byrne.

According to Ray Bowe, Chair, Food Safety Consultative Council, the open meeting gives the general public an opportunity to engage with the FSAI around topics of common interest such as the relationship between plastic and food safety in the food chain: “Research is evolving and needs further depth to better inform the right decisions that will protect both the food chain and the planet for the future. Now more than ever, the issue of plastic pollution is causing worry to the general public, but industry needs packaging solutions to ensure food is safe. The world is at a turning point where the role that plastic plays in more sustainable ways of feeding people safely, is at the heart of global debate.”

Jack O’Sullivan, Director, Zero Waste Ireland called for a complete change in how people and industry use plastics: "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. We have to live within the carrying capacity of planet earth, and completely eliminate fossil fuels from our ‘diet’. This requires no more production of the plastics we currently use, all of which are made from oil derivatives. Instead there are plenty of replacement substitutes which we can make from plant materials which are renewable and recyclable."

Focussing on microplastics in particular, Prof. Gordon Chambers, from Technological University Dublin’s School of Physics, Clinical and Optometric Science told delegates: “Tackling plastic pollution represents a significant challenge to society. First, 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. This plastic litter degrades over time to produce tiny fragments of plastic called microplastics, which can potentially enter into the food chain and be subsequently consumed. Other pathways for exposure to microplastics exist; including airborne microplastics. There is no evidence of any specific health risk associated with microplastic exposure. However, the lack of long-term studies on exposure to microplastics represents a significant knowledge gap in our understanding of these tiny entities.”

Anna Turrell, Head of Sustainability, Nestlé UK and Ireland, outlined how Nestlé is committed and investing to deliver 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025 across its vast portfolio of products in the world: “As we work towards the realisation of a circular economy for plastic, it is imperative that we work together as industry, government and civil society. Plastic packaging plays an important role in safely delivering food and drinks to consumers and reducing food loss and waste, so we need to carefully consider alternatives before making changes. We believe that with effective collaboration, collection and recycling of plastic is not only possible, but can catalyse the change required to create a more effective plastics system in which plastics never become waste. We are committed to being an active and progressive partner to find solutions, whilst moving ahead to deliver 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025. To accelerate our efforts, we have established the Nestlé Institute of Packaging Sciences – a world first - dedicated to the discovery and development of functional, safe and environmentally friendly packaging solutions. Its focus includes recyclable, biodegradable or compostable polymers, functional paper, as well as new packaging concepts and technologies to increase the recyclability of plastic packaging. New solutions will be tested in various product categories, before they are rolled out across Nestlé’s global portfolio”.

Food Safety Consultative Council