We need new weapons against packaging waste
Last month, researchers found microplastics -- small, microscopic pieces of plastic fragments -- within human lungs for the first time. This comes on the heels of news that microplastics were found in human blood, which may travel around the body and enter organs.
Microplastics find their way into our bodies through, among other methods, breathing them in as well as through contact with plastic bottles, packaging, clothing and other manufacturing processes. An example is the release and leaching of plastic flakes from containers into food and drinks, leading to our direct consumption.
The food and beverage (F&B) industry plays an integral role in our journey to reduce plastic waste and prevent its negative impact on human health, given that 60% of total plastic leakage into the ocean in Thailand originates from the packaging sector.
The extent of the challenge has been severely exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to an expansion of food delivery services and increased plastic waste -- from 2.12 million tonnes in 2019 to 3.4 million tonnes in 2020, a 62% increase, according to the Thailand Environment Institute. Unfortunately, waste disposal hasn't kept pace with this increase, as only 660,000 tonnes were recycled in 2020.
The food and beverage industry has long relied on plastic packaging materials for good reason. Plastic is a key material to protect food against contamination and uphold stringent food safety and quality standards in a supply chain where products go through over a dozen touch points from production to delivery. The durability of polymers also means that plastic can protect food from spoilage, increase their shelf life and reduce food waste.
This means the drive to reduce plastic packaging in the food sector, while important and well-intentioned, is highly complex and there are many factors to consider. The food sector must adopt new and innovative solutions that are robust enough for the supply chain, support food security and also suit people's needs in a post-pandemic environment.
The food service industry often utilises single-use plastics (SUPs) including polystyrene and hard-to-recycle plastics including flexibles (films, sachets and more). These materials provided a lifeline for food providers during the pandemic when deliveries, drive-throughs and takeaways were essential to keeping infections low and hygiene standards high.
The Circulate Initiative found that food service sales decreased by 36% in 2020 across Southeast Asia as countries went into lockdown, with off-premises sales exceeding dine-in sales in Thailand and the Philippines. By 2025, these SUPs are projected to make up more than 70% of the market for food packaging in South and Southeast Asia.
For the food industry to reduce its dependence on plastics, it needs to find alternative solutions. The good news is the region has a tradition of environmentally friendly packaging materials such as banana leaves or bamboo, and a plentiful supply of agricultural products such as cassava starch, sugarcane and corn, which can substitute for fossil fuels and are biodegradable under the right conditions.
In Indonesia, the startup Greenhope offers a cassava-based biodegradable range called Ecoplas. Farther afield in India, Zerocircle uses seaweed to create food packaging film that is 100% home compostable while meeting food safety standards.
Yet, alternative packaging solutions are mostly driven by early-stage companies that often struggle to reach sufficient commercial scale or viability to suit both producers and consumers in the food sector. Entrepreneurs face a range of challenges, including a lack of capital, collaborative industry partners, managerial experience, underdeveloped value chains and complex policy and regulatory frameworks.
To better encourage the use of environmentally sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging, it is imperative that these startups get the support they need to take their solutions to the next level.
In response to this need, The Incubation Network has initiated the Single Use Plastics (SUP) Challenge, which connects startups across the region with F&B partners. Entrepreneurs are partnered with support organisations such as Seedstars and Rise Impact and work with restaurants, small eateries and food delivery services to establish pilot projects across Thailand. They are also connected with investors who can help finance their ventures.
Amid rising risks to global food security, the survival of players in the food sector will depend on their agility. Companies must respond to growing calls for alternatives to plastic packaging, while meeting consumer demand and minimising food waste.
Certainly, everyone involved -- from food producers to end consumers -- is concerned about the mounting plastic waste issue and its negative effects on human health. A regional survey by the United Nations Environment Programme and Food Industry Asia in 2020 found that 91% of consumers were "extremely concerned" about the plastic waste issue. Similarly, 82% of companies expressed concerns about plastic waste.
The government is also stepping up. Just last month, a ban of all SUPs and plastic-foam items from Thailand's national parks took effect. This follows a ban on four types of plastics from January, including plastic bags less than 36 microns in thickness, Styrofoam food boxes, plastic straws and single-use plastic cups.
What we need now is for startups to pursue innovation, work with partners to share knowledge and expertise, and join us as we embark on a sustainable journey together.
Simon Baldwin is the global head of circularity for SecondMuse and director of The Incubation Network.