Greater scrutiny needed on food packaging

30 June 2022

#PlasticFreeJuly Positive signs are on the horizon, but much work is still to be done by supermarkets and food producers in taking responsibility for their food packaging.

  • Dr Joya Kemper

    Dr Joya Kemper specialises in consumer behaviour, the circular economy and corporate responsibility at the University of Canterbury (UC).

SDG 12

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production

That’s the view of Dr Joya Kemper, who specialises in consumer behaviour, the circular economy and corporate responsibility at the University of Canterbury (UC). 

“Supermarkets need to make sure that when they say plastic packaging is able to be recycled, it actually can be (through infrastructure) in New Zealand. When they say something is compostable, does it actually breakdown in compost within a reasonable period of time?

“We need innovative and bold solutions to tackle plastic pollution. That doesn’t mean settling for the easiest option – companies must do their research to truly understand the most sustainable solution for their packaging, especially as it’s not as black-and-white as we might think.”

Dr Kemper has been looking at how people reduce their use and buying of plastic packaging in the face of damning evidence about the impact of plastics on our environment. She wanted to know why and how people reduce their use of plastics in their everyday grocery shopping.

“I chose grocery shopping because I’m passionate about transforming our food system into one which is healthy, sustainable, and equitable. Plastic pollution is largely made up of single use plastics that are predominantly found in the food system.

“Food manufacturers and retailers must change their practices and make efforts to inform consumers about how to return, recycle or compost their packaging in order to transition to a sustainable packaging system.

“We’re seeing efforts in this area, but there is more to be done. For instance, there is a confusion around the differences between degradable, biodegradable, and compostable plastics, and many people don’t know where to dispose of them.”

She says fancy and ‘good looking’ packaging may also be causing problems as using multiple types of plastic, different layers or coloured plastics in packaging makes it harder to recycle. Plus, some plastics (such as 3,4, 6 and 7) are more difficult to recycle in New Zealand; often they’re not worth recycling and so are put into landfill.

Dr Kemper spoke with people who were motivated to reduce plastic use largely because of seeing visible litter on the ground and in the oceans. Some tried to ensure plastics they were buying were actually recyclable in their district while others refused to buy anything in plastic packaging.

“People were frustrated by the amount of plastic in supermarkets and the unavailability of products in non-plastic packaging such as some fruit, meat substitutes, plant milks and snacks such as biscuits and chips.”

People she spoke with learnt a lot about recycling from friends, family, colleagues and online bloggers. The use of refillable (reusable) packaging was widespread and a key means for plastic reduction.

“But the trouble was the inconvenience as people had to make multiple trips to different stores, specific stores which may be further from home than their local supermarket, the need to remember containers, and sometimes food items costing more. Interestingly, though, most mentioned they spend less on impulse purchases and only buy what they need, so some believed their grocery bill had decreased.”

Dr Kemper is continuing her research into sustainable packaging, including those that can be refilled or returned and continues to collaborate with industry and across disciplines on alternative systems and materials for packaging.

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