Innovative solutions to dangerous consumption

Marianne Areng
TIK MA Student
Written in collaboration with Grønt Punkt

Our current consumption practices are not sustainable, making food security a challenge. However, potential solutions are on the way.

The concept of food security has been an important aspect of international development policy for many years. The World Food Summit of 1996 defined the achievement of food security as when “all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life». Accomplishing this goal has so far proved to be a complex challenge, as it is not only a matter of short term access to nutritious food, but also closely connected to current global debates on ensuring a sustainable world.

When it comes to secure consumption of food, it is not just a matter of what we eat, but includes what we leave behind in the process and the risks that follow. One of the most problematic materials for disposal is also the world’s most produced and most widely used for packaging: plastic. Worldwide, there were over 300 million tons of plastic produced in 20151, and 40% of all plastic produced in Europe was for packaging alone2. Given the difficulties of proper disposal, plastic is the waste product which most commonly ends up washing into the ocean. This can lead to it being eaten by animals, which can often be fatal.

Furthermore, because the decomposition time for plastic to break down completely is so long, it gets worn down to smaller and smaller parts, creating microplastic. These particles are confused as food by fish and other marine animals – animals which often end up on our dinner table. It is estimated that if the amount of general plastic waste is not stopped or drastically reduced, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 20503. In maintaining our current production of non-degradable plastic, we are endangering one of the world’s most central food sources and jeopardising our own health as well.

Changing individuals’ consumer practices has been shown time and again to be anything but simple. Realising this, some organizations are working directly to change the way certain products are made and thereby impact consumer practices. New developments in the packaging industry have, for example, resulted in the testing of degradable products such as bioplastics and bottles made out of seaweed.

Worldwide, initiatives to reform the plastic industry are growing in size and influence. According to European Bioplastics, bioplastics are plastics that are either made from biomass, are biodegradable, or both. They can do almost anything that commonly used fossil plastic can do. The challenges of replacing fossil plastic are not mainly technical, but European Bioplastics argue that the lack of effective policy measures or regulatory incentives do not encourage full-scale market adoption. The good news is that, despite the lack of widespread commercial demand, an increasing number of companies are switching to bio-based plastics. Prices have come down significantly as production capacities have increased, and supply chains are becoming more efficient. Today, the main applications for bioplastics are bottles and other packaging uses. As fossil plastic also accounts for CO2 emissions equivalent to double the amount of all CO2 emissions from global air traffic4, increased production of bioplastics clearly represents positive change.   

Another way of connecting the issue of food security to sustainability is through the Nordic brand Svanen, the official sustainability ecolabel for the Nordic countries. Among several projects, Svanen attempts to address the challenge regarding renewable packaging of beverages. Their goal is to stimulate the development of renewable packaging materials for certain liquids, while ensuring that the primary function of packaging – protecting and enhancing the durability of the product – is maintained. They want to exclude metal and non-degradable plastic, as well as recycled paper and cardboard in packaging. By doing this, they will not only limit plastic garbage and CO2 emissions, but also prevent chemicals from processed paper from migrating into the product.   

In a 2012 research paper, Tim Lang and David Barling suggest that although there is a growing awareness of the stress the capacity of food production is under, there is still too little recognition of how extensive the changes to the process need to be for it to become sustainable. This includes the whole value chain, from the first step of production to final consumption. Furthermore, they ascertain that a basic truth exists: “[…] the only food system to be secure is that which is sustainable, and the route to food security is by addressing sustainability”.

1 World Plastics Production, 2016
2 Zero Emission Resource Organisation, 2014
3 World economic forum 2016
4 Zero Emission Resource Organisation, 2014

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