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Instead of neatly cut triangles of butter that most cafes serve with a scone these days, the butter came in those old single-serve plastic packs.
I asked the woman behind the counter why they still used these and she said it would take far too long to cut butter into pieces to serve.
I had visions of thousands of these single serve packs deposited on riverbanks and beaches when the Fox Glacier landfill was washed out in a flood in 2019.
Back in the day, lots of consumables came in single portion plastic packs — butter, jam, marmalade, milk, tomato and soy sauce, shampoo, conditioner.
They were convenient for hotels, motels and cafes, but I thought we’d mostly got beyond that in our realisation that plastic is indestructible and its breakdown into tiny pieces spreads throughout the environment.
But next time I went to the supermarket I started thinking about all the other packaging — everything except some fruit and vegetables and some of the fish and meat behind the counter was packaged, some of the packaging more eco-friendly than others. Then there were shelves and fridges full of drinks in single-use plastic bottles. Plastic is everywhere.
But if the food wasn’t vacuum packed or wrapped, how much more would be wasted? We already throw out 122,547 tonnes of food each year — but we also throw out 1.76 billion plastic containers.
Landfills are full and people don’t want new ones near them, but we continue to buy and throw out stuff.
It was a conundrum, so I talked to Associate Prof Miranda Mirosa, of the University of Otago, a specialist in food waste research.
“I would have thought that cafe would have been getting enough pushback from customers like yourself, given that we know most New Zealanders are concerned. I suspect they won’t go on [using plastic-wrapped butter] for too long,” she said.
New Zealanders are among the highest generators of plastic waste in the world, an estimated average of 159g of plastic waste per person per day, she pointed out.
By 2025 it’s said there will be a tonne of plastic in the sea for every three tonnes of fish. Micro-plastics are found in the sediments in the deepest parts of the ocean and are getting into the human food chain through fish. A recent report said that micro-plastics had been found on both sides of the placenta of unborn human babies in the UK.
Plastic packaging was definitely high on the concerns of Kiwis, Prof Mirosa said.
“There is some good Colmar Brunton survey data, right up there in terms of top concerns and obviously we’ve got a lot of people across the country who are participating in organised initiatives like Plastic Free July.
‘‘The big supermarkets have signed up to plastic packaging declarations. They’ve committed to reducing the amount or getting rid of single use plastic and pledging to use 100% recyclable or compostable plastic by 2025.”
However some of these initiatives have slowed with the Covid pandemic, and Covid testing, vaccination and PPE, not to mention many other healthcare procedures also create a huge amount of waste themselves.
“A lot of environmentalists are frustrated. I think it really felt like plastic was one of those issues that had been gaining good traction, but things are slowing down.”
Prof Mirosa said staff costs were often seen as an issue preventing food service doing the right thing for the environment.
“I remember in the university halls of residence when I was doing some food waste work looking at a range of different initiatives that would reduce the waste from the buffet canteen type settings they run. A really obvious one that had been tried and tested in so many similar settings was simply to remove the dining trays.”
Students would pile multiple plates with huge quantities of food, but only eat a fraction of it. Without a tray, they could only take one plate, although they could go back for another helping, but when they had eaten they usually realised they were full.
However, the response was that it would cost more to pay staff to clean the tables than the cost of food waste, she said.
“I was just blown away by such an apparently silly barrier. But it was a real barrier — they were running that fine a margin.”
The biggest trend in food retail is convenience, followed by buying online, which is directly linked. On-the-go packaging, single serve snack food — whether healthy or not — is the ultimate convenience and has been increasing year on year, she said.
From a health perspective, single-serve packs control portion size, so you may have less food waste but more packaging waste.
“Arguably, food waste can be a bigger problem than the plastic waste depending on what metrics you use to measure the problem. You certainly get messages from the packaging bodies that say 10 times more resources (materials, energy, water and that sort of thing) are used to make the food than the packaging to protect it.”
One option would be to use more eco-friendly packaging, such as recycled plastics or some sort of cardboard alternative. Another would be to change some of our behaviours and expectations and find alternative ways of doing things, which is obviously much harder than making better packaging, she said.
Last year the government announced a plan to phase out problematic plastics over the next few years.
Plastic water bottles may not be on the agenda yet but supermarket bags have already gone. PVC packaging and polystyrene takeaway packaging, single use produce bags and plastic tableware are to follow, and soon after plastic straws, cotton buds, drink stirrers and non-compostable produce stickers.
“The government has also opened an innovation fund to support projects and innovations, so there is movement. Whether it comes through consumer pressure or government enforcement, I think we will see change. But in the meantime people don’t need to wait for legislation, but it would be nice if they could cut up their butter. The willingness needs to be there,” she said.