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The Global Food Waste Failure: Examining the Role of Throwaway Plastic Packaging

With 49 million tonnes of plastic consumed annually across Europe in packaging alone, our appetite for plastic grows ever more ravenous.  Meanwhile, a proliferation of throwaway plastic food packaging coincides with mounting global food waste: one-third of global food production (around 1.3 billion tonnes) is wasted each year.

Food waste is responsible for up to 10% of greenhouse emissions

The scale of this environmental and social market failure is stark: 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions are accounted for by non-consumed food, while a similar proportion of the world’s population (691–783 million people) go hungry. In this context, arguments promoting disposable plastic packaging as the solution appear alluring. Yet simplistic claims of a ‘trade-off’ between the two different types of waste overlook links between throwaway packaging and consumption choices.

On-the-go habit

While some plastic packaging does indeed help protect food and extend its shelf-life, the rise of disposable wrapping has helped transform eating habits and production processes. Single-use plastics underpin convenience habits such as takeaways and ‘on-the-go’ food culture. Global annual natural capital costs from plastics in the food industry have been estimated at €15 billion. Furthermore, ‘packaging waste has grown alongside food waste, challenging its potential to contribute to reducing food waste’. Developing countries, where plastic packaging is less prevalent, have lower rates of household food waste. 

Throwaway culture

The volume of wasted food attributed to households (53 per cent) exceeds all other sectors combined. Changes in eating habits, exacerbated by smaller household sizes, have coincided with multi-material packaging which is complex and difficult to recycle. Products with high packaging/ product ratios, such as pre-cut fruit and vegetables, packaged sandwiches/wraps and meal kits, reflect urban lifestyles and are among the food industry’s fastest-growing segments. Meanwhile, the relative cheapness of food as a proportion of household incomes has also been associated with a ‘throwaway’ culture as well as growing obesity levels.

One analysis of contributors to food waste identifies five technological drivers related to food processing and packaging. Retail tactics such as multipacks, driven by heavy marketing, and often tempting buyers to buy more than they need, have been connected to plastic packaging. In addition, a combination of changing buyer preferences and quality control processes, along the food chain, can cause ‘hidden’ food wastage. For fresh produce, pre-determined packaging formats and sizes restrict the produce deemed suitable by major retailers. Some 20kg per head of food are wasted in the European Union annually in the agriculture sector alone.

Supply chain solution?

Plastic packaging is associated with much longer distribution supply chains, driven by production efficiencies and year-round demand for seasonal produce.

Short food supply chains (SFSCs) can bring consumers closer to local farmers, reducing both food and plastic waste.

Food cooperatives demonstrate how collective action can make supply chains more sustainable while preserving individual choice/taste.

Zero-waste retailers/restaurants and reverse logistics also point to a future where ‘re-use’ habits curb both food and packaging waste.

But consumer choice is only part of the solution. Municipalities also have a role, both as procurers of food and via waste management.

In the long term, the priorities for government should be to:

  • Develop a holistic, evidence-based approach to the role of plastic packaging in the food system, identifying the underlying drivers of food waste and its interaction with plastic packaging.

  • Review legislation to assess and address gaps in order to tackle the dual challenge of food waste and plastic waste.

  • Use market-based instruments to prompt behavioural change towards avoiding food and plastic waste and keeping resources in the economy.

  • Provide greater investment and funding for waste prevention systems, including zero and reusable packaging systems and better integrated SFSCs between rural and urban areas, with a focus on retailers and SMEs.


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shelf of vegetables - Image by Firda Faradiba (ST ref: 1303)

Food waste mouldy bread - Image by Nick Saltmarsh (ST ref: 1290)

fish and chips takeaway - Image by Jakub Kapusnak (ST ref: 1098)

zero waste store by Wix (ST ref: 1304)


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