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Loosen up: Study signals end to ‘unnecessary plastic packaging’

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New research from WRAP directly challenges the status quo of the way retailers sell fresh uncut fruit and vegetables, the global sustainability NGO says.

WRAP says the findings of the 18-month study, which examines the link between food waste in the home and the use of plastic packaging, upturn “accepted thinking” that packaging helps to preserve fresh produce. In fact, it shows that selling loose has huge potential to reduce food waste in the homes. The research also examined the influence of date labels and storage temperatures on food going to waste.

WRAP is now calling on the UK’s major retailers to rethink how they sell uncut fresh produce with three key recommendations:

  • Sell loose – where possible, unless it is shown that plastic packaging reduces overall food waste.
  • Remove date labels – unless it can be shown that a Best Before reduces overall food waste.
  • Refrigerate below 5°C at home – Help your customers understand the benefits of storing appropriate fresh produce in the fridge, set at the right temperature.

Marcus Gover, CEO WRAP, said: “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. 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.

“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”

“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.

Source: WRAP

WRAP tested five commonly wasted items (apples, bananas, broccoli, cucumber and potatoes) stored in the original packaging and loose and at different temperatures. The charity found that selling the five loose and removing Best Before dates could result in a combined saving of around 100,000 tonnes of household food waste, more than 10,300 tonnes of plastic and 130,000 tonnes of CO2e. This saving comes from both enabling people to buy the right amount for their needs (potatoes, bananas and apples) and to use their judgement to decide when items are still good to eat.

WRAP says its study provides “compelling evidence” to grocery retailers of the benefits in significantly increasing the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables sold loose. 

A chilling opportunity
The research also confirmed a point WRAP has long promoted – that uncut fresh produce can be good to eat long after the Best Before date and most lasts longer in the fridge. When stored at 4°C, apples, for example, 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 after that. Broccoli showed no signs of deterioration until more than two weeks after the Best Before date.

The power of a date label
These new findings have prompted WRAP to reiterate its call (made in 2019) for the removal of Best Before dates from fresh uncut produce wherever possible.

The results of WRAP’s work have been shared with UK’s largest food retailers, along with the key recommendations. Whilst keen for its recommendations to be implemented, the charity acknowledges that this move is likely to take time and requires the whole sector to work together – and bring citizens on the journey too. In the coming months, WRAP will continue to consult with the Food Standards Agency, Defra and industry over the recommendations as well as updating Best Practice guidance, and to develop a pathway for more fresh uncut produce to be sold loose.

Plastic Pact updated
Also published is an updated list of key plastic items for UK Plastics Pact members to remove as far as possible by the end of 2022. The additional items are:

  • Plastic wrapping for multi-sales of tins, bottles, and cartons
  • PVC cling film
  • Non compostable fruit and veg stickers
  • Non compostable tea and coffee bags
  • Single use/single serving plastic sachets/jiggers in restaurant settings

To this target, WRAP is now adding a longer term goal eliminating plastic packaging for uncut fresh fruit and vegetables unless demonstrated to reduce food waste

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