‘Game-changing’ research has demystified the relationship between food waste, packaging, date labels and storage, charity says.
The UK’s major supermarkets have been urged to sell fresh, uncut fruit and vegetables without plastic packaging or best-before dates in a new report, which found this could dramatically reduce food waste and CO2 emissions.
An 18-month study by the food waste charity Wrap found that selling fresh produce loose and without date labels enables customers to buy the right amount for their needs and use their own judgement to decide when items should be thrown away.
Researchers looked at five commonly wasted items – apples, bananas, broccoli, cucumber and potatoes – and compared outcomes when sold both with and without packaging and date labels.
The charity found that selling just these five foods without packaging or best-before dates could result in a combined annual saving of around 100,000 tonnes of household food waste, more than 10,300 tonnes of plastic, and 130,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent – close to Tonga’s entire annual CO2 output in 2020.
The study also reinforced past research showing that uncut fresh produce can be safe to eat long after the best-before date, with most items lasting longer in the fridge.
When stored at 40C, apples showed no signs of deterioration until two and a half months after their best-before date, and were still good to eat for some time afterwards, while broccoli showed no signs of deterioration until more than a fortnight after its best-before date.
As a result, the report recommends that UK retailers “rethink” how they sell uncut fresh produce, and help shoppers understand the importance of refrigerating appropriate produce below 50C.
Wrap said it had shared its findings and recommendations with the UK’s largest food retailers but acknowledged that implementing them was “likely to take time”.
The Independent has approached Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Lidl, Asda and Morrisons for comment on the findings.
“This important research could be a game-changer in the fight against food waste and plastic pollution. We have demystified the relationship between wasted food, plastic packaging, date labels and food storage,” said Wrap’s chief executive, Marcus Gover.
“While packaging is important and often carries out a critical role to protect food, we have proven that plastic packaging doesn’t necessarily prolong the life of uncut fresh produce. It can, in fact, increase food waste in this case.
“We have shown the massive potential to save good food from being thrown away by removing date labels.
“We are all living with the reality of the climate emergency and the rising cost of living. This new clarity could not be more timely.
“We need retailers to step up and follow our recommendations so we can achieve real progress in tackling food waste and plastic pollution. This helps save the planet and us money at the same time – a real win-win.”
Wrap also published an updated list of key plastic items for UK Plastics Pact members – who include major supermarkets, manufacturers, producers and other companies – to remove as far as possible by the end of 2022 alongside the fresh produce packaging.
These include plastic packaging for multi-sales of tins, bottles and cartons; PVC cling film; non-compostable fruit and veg stickers; non-compostable tea and coffee bags; and single-serving plastic sachets in restaurants.
The UK’s 10 leading supermarket chains were found to have collectively sold 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging in 2019 – the equivalent weight of 90 Eiffel Towers.
But research by Wrap suggests that, between 2018 and 2020, UK Plastics Pact members cut the amount of packaging on supermarket shelves by 10 per cent, with a corresponding drop in CO2 that the charity described as equivalent to taking 150,000 cars off the road.
The apparent shift comes in response to rising consumer concern around plastic packaging, which polling suggests could be significantly affecting buying habits.
An Ipsos Mori poll of more than 20,000 people across 28 countries, also published on Tuesday, found that three in four respondents supported banning single-use plastic packaging as soon as possible – up from 71 per cent in 2019. Those who said they favoured products with less plastic packaging rose from 75 to 82 per cent.
The findings come as United Nations members prepare for talks in Nairobi on a global treaty to rein in soaring plastic pollution, which has been touted in some quarters as potentially the most important environmental pact since the Paris Agreement adopted in 2015.
However, it remains to be seen whether any such deal will focus on waste collection and recycling, or if it will support more radical measures such as curbing the production and use of throwaway plastics.
Reuters reported last week that big oil and chemical industry groups were devising strategies to persuade conference participants to reject any deal that would limit the production of plastic – which is made from oil and gas and is a key source of their revenues.
Additional reporting by PA