The newly-declared ‘war on plastics’ is neatly on trend. No modern consumer wants to be a villain, the kind of mindless shopper who’s contributing to the ocean stew of waste seen in the BBC’s Blue Planet II. We want fresh, healthy foods; local produce and sustainability.
These two groups of consumer attitudes are inextricably linked and confused. Fundamentally, it’s the insistence on ‘natural’ foods that is damaging the natural environment. We increasingly live in a plastic age because of it, and more charges for plastic bags and introducing ‘plastic-free’ aisles in supermarkets aren’t going to have any impact on this root issue. It’s the stereotype of the wealthy, middle-class (and environmentally-aware) shopper who is the biggest problem.
If we’re serious about protecting our oceans, seas, rivers and soils, then we need to be more self-aware, and start asking difficult questions about our consumer habits and demands. It was possible to live in a world without plastic-wrapped food for so many generations, including in the early days of supermarkets, because we were used to other forms of preservation. We ate a lot more tinned food. We were relatively happy with meats preserved in salt, fruits in sugar, vegetables in vinegar.
Reasonably enough, shoppers argue that the use of plastic by food manufacturers and retailers isn’t their choice. Why use it at all? Without some form of preservative, the shelf-life of many foods is very short, leading to greater amounts of food waste and large cost increases from the need to speed up the logistical cycle from supplier to shelves, which would be passed on to consumers.
The evolving healthy food culture means an instinctive aversion to anything involving salt, sugar or any chemical preservatives. So solutions have become physical - plastics, chilling and freezing. Which is why, of all the large food retailers, Iceland has been the first to announce a ban, aiming to end the use of plastic in its own-brand products within five years. It’s not a breakthrough unfortunately. Because products are frozen it’s more practical to use alternatives, as per the suggested paper and pulp trays and paper bags. Consumers are willing to buy some products frozen, but only a limited range, and want far more products fresh. For the moment, the biodegradable alternatives to plastic just don’t do the same job. Time, investment and incentives are needed to find realistic alternatives, and in the meantime we need to appreciate the role that plastics play in the current supermarket fresh food culture, rather than condemning them as the problem just in themselves.
It’s going to take clear legislation to encourage retailers to find alternatives more quickly, to test different ideas with shoppers, and to create the necessary consensus among the food industry players to do more. The landfill tax, for example, had a large impact on focusing the minds of industry on reducing waste and finding ways to re-use materials. The challenge will be in maintaining interest in the fresh foods versus plastics use question - as businesses know that the news agenda will quickly move on, making it easier to persist with a fudge of mostly ineffective half-measures, a resistance among consumers to anything that means higher prices and less convenience. Supermarkets need to keep making it clear, choosing ’fresh and natural’ may mean choosing plastic.