Loose produce in the Plastic Age

11 March 2024

Just as humans lived through the Bronze and Iron Ages, so today we’re living in a time when one human innovation is synonymous with the era - the Plastics Age. Surveys of annual ocean sediments over decades show increases in plastics directly mirror the explosion in plastic manufacturing over the last seventy years, with microplastics in California doubling every 15 years since World War II. With plastics not only in sedimentary layers but in the air, the blood of fish and animals and even in human placentas, our plastics obsession is leaving a mark on the planet and its inhabitants.

For most people, nowhere is plastic more obvious than in food and drink packaging.

Stores sell food shrink-wrapped, bottled, and boxed in plastic and while packaging plays a key role in preserving and protecting food from damage and around food safety, it’s not always necessary. Nowhere is that more evident than in the fresh produce aisle, which often uses plastics that are not easily recycled, nor necessary from a food preservation and safety perspective. When ‘single use’ has become the standard approach for much plastic on shelf for decades, we must interrogate its use more critically and use it more sustainably - where it remains the best option.

Fresh uncut fruit and vegetables and plastics have been the norm for decades. The rise of supermarket shopping committed fresh produce to bags and plastic became popular because it’s convenient, cheap, and lightweight. But WRAP proved that pre-packed uncut fresh produce is also the root cause of a huge amount of food waste happening in our homes.

Research conducted over 18-months by WRAP with industry found that both selling fresh produce loose whenever possible – without the pressure of a Best Before date (getting in the way of using our judgement of when food is good to eat) but with advice for home refrigeration for all but a few items - could help prevent 100,000 tonnes of fresh produce from going to waste, of the items tested. That’s the equivalent of 14 million shopping baskets of fresh produce. It could also prevent the need for more than a thousand rubbish trucks full of plastic (10,300 tonnes) over the course of one year.

Simply by allowing people to buy what they need, without plastic or date labels, could prevent 130,000 tonnes of CO2e emissions every year. Based on these findings, it’s clear we need to rethink buying fruit and veg, fast.

The reason this research is so important is that fresh produce consistently tops the most wasted food list in the home, with potatoes their unassuming leader. Household food waste far outweighs food waste at any other stage in the supply chain too, with UK consumers throwing away 60% of the UK’s 10.7 million tonne total, every year.

Together, we produce an astonishing 6.4 million tonnes of food waste in our homes, the vast majority of which could have been eaten. In financial terms, this costs an average four-person household £1,000 a year. It’s no small beans, environmentally or economically, and we have a huge opportunity to address two enormous environmental issues in one go – plastics and food waste. But selling loose is not as simple as it sounds. Supermarket shopping developed over decades into the streamlined, automated system that delivers prepacked fresh produce in store or in our online shop delivery, fast. It works, we love the convenience of grabbing a bag - can we really live any other way?

Changing this complex system won’t happen overnight.

The reality of what we’re asking retailers to do is huge - with many practical barriers to overcome. Add to this the idea of changing human behaviour when we’ve become accustomed to picking up a single bag of carrots rather than a handful of loose carrots - and the task seems dauting. But when roughly half of carbon emissions can only be addressed by changing the way we make, use and discard of products – and with the world already experiencing a full year of temperatures beyond the 1.5⁰C limit - these are precisely the steps we must take.

WRAP has broken this huge task down into more manageable steps set out in our “Pathway to selling more uncut fruit and veg loose”, with milestones and key actions for retailers. To address barriers facing both retailers and shopper, our fourth Food Waste Action Week (18-24 March) will focus on the benefits of buying loose and both encourage people to do so where they can, while helping our retail partners take steps towards being able to offer more loose produce on sale; and communicate the benefits to their customers.

It's critical we move forward together and extract ourselves from the current Catch 22 with demand and supply both waiting for the other to make the first move. So, our Love Food Hate Waste programme will engage people with a campaign framed around the message to Choose what you’ll use promoting the benefits of picking loose produce wherever possible. We hope to influence hearts, minds, and shopping habits through another high-profile ambassador-led Food Waste Action Week incorporating film, influencers and widescale news, current affairs, and social media engagement with millions of people – across the UK and in our partner countries.

But with only a relatively small percentage of fresh produce currently sold loose in most supermarkets – an estimated 18% - we’re also working with partners to help them introduce more trials to unpack fresh produce in more stores and help work out what works best for implementation, and to encourage customers to choose loose.

We are holding a Partner Event on the 21st March with a daylong online programme bringing together stakeholders to focus on household food waste prevention. There’ll be thought-provoking sessions delivered by WRAP experts and industry professionals including a panel chaired by WRAP Chair Seb Munden for members of Courtauld 2030 and the UK Plastics Pact voluntary agreements, to accelerate progress on household food waste prevention. We’ll be unveiling the latest citizen insights and research from our food waste tracker on behaviours and attitudes towards household food waste and loose fresh produce to learn how best to engage customers. And hearing from industry leaders on what supermarkets are doing to tackle the barriers to selling fruit and vegetables loose, including those leading trials instore.

Food waste, like plastics, is a universal problem and not just one experienced here in the UK. Our forthcoming Food Waste Index report, published with UNEP, highlights the fact that the home is the largest contributor of food waste. And globally, wasted food continues to produce enough greenhouse gases to place it third behind China and the USA in the global GHG stakes.

So, when we have the option to slash problematic single-use plastic waste and cut food waste in a single move, while grapes perhaps won’t be the number one priority, shouldn’t we embrace the idea of a life lived without bananas in bags?

Estelle Herszenhorn, Head of Food System Transformation at WRAP, leads the climate action NGO’s global food programme. This includes work reducing emissions linked to food and drink, food waste prevention projects and activities improving water management in key food producing areas around the world.

This article first appeared in Circular