Plastic dilemma in the food industry

Plastic is around us everywhere in our life, from food and drink to clothes, furniture, toys, cars, and medical equipment, ending up often in seas and oceans. Plastic materials are a huge global problem; in recent years, plastic materials have increasingly become a worldwide issue that creates considerable concern for both human health and the environment. It is well-known that plastic waste does not break down easily, meaning that it could stay in the environment, in the form of microplastics and nanoplastics, for a long time. That is why almost every single piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists somewhere on this planet. Especially, seas and oceans could be a potential source of microplastics and nanoplastics accumulation.
Some shocking plastic statistics are:
  • The equivalent of 15 tonnes of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every minute.
  • The world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.
  • The annual human ingestion average of microplastics ranges from 39,000 to 52,000 particles.
  • About 29,500 tonnes of plastic waste are thrown each year.
  • The annual production of plastic is drastically increasing and expected to reach 33 billion tonnes by 2050.
The main route of exposure of humans to microplastics is the food chain (through food contamination or accumulation of microplastics in animals, plants, etc.). For example, more and more studies are showing that fish and other marine organisms (e.g., mussels and oysters) have microplastic particles in their gastrointestinal tracts. Food packaging is another important pathway of human exposure, since several studies have shown the release of plastic components into foodstuffs from the packaging, causing not only the alteration of the sensory properties of food but also possible negative impacts on human health.
However, plastics play important roles in the food industry, especially in food packaging, by retaining freshness and decreasing deterioration of packed products. In addition, plastic materials are of low cost, abundantly available, and have unique functional properties. Therefore, the food industry cannot afford to completely get rid of plastic.
Some initiatives have been launched to reduce the amount of plastic packaging being used in the food industry. Restrict the use of plastic to vital applications, remove single-use plastic, and develop efficient recycling and reuse system seem to be a reasonable strategy that should be prioritized all over the world. Some courtiers (such as Norway) have already implemented advanced plastic management programs, whereas few countries have achieved significant recycling rate. In Norway, the recycling rate is 97% due to the so-called “to pant” system: Customers pay a few extra cents when purchasing a drink in plastic bottles or cans, and they’re refunded that amount when they return their empties to a deposit system (reverse vending machines). Recycling rate in France is only 60%, but sustainable actions have been taken recently to ban plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables.
Scientific developments have also the potential to contribute to address this issue. For example, the scientific literature shows that spectroscopic techniques can be used to detect and identify plastic materials in many food products. Nanotechnology is among the promising techniques that inhibit migration of plastic substances from food packaging. The possibility of reusing polymeric materials for 3D printing is another environmentally friendly method of waste plastic valorization. Other innovative and promising solutions based on, for example, bio-sourced plastics are constantly emerging. Indeed, eco-friendly alternative materials (e.g., biopolymers) to the conventional plastics that can be extracted from food waste and used as “bioplastcs” have been the subject of a tremendous amount of studies in recent years. However, consumer acceptance of these novel packaging materials remains to be thoroughly investigated.
In this project, various plastic and microplastic management strategies will be described, along with pointing out various approaches and solutions that have proven successful in different countries.
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