Food system plastics
Plastics are used extensively across global and local food systems from 'farm to flush', serving important functions in different contexts with a wide range of intended and unintended outcomes. These impacts occur across broad domains; from human health, livelihoods and income, to food security, the environment and climate change. Plastic pollution is a huge environmental problem, for which food systems are a contributor. Therefore, addressing the plastic issue must be central among efforts to make food systems more circular and sustainable.
IMMANA conducts research into the critical linkages between food system plastics and their myriad effects across domains, to better inform evidence for circular food system policies.
Food system plastics: Systematically mapping the evidence
Plastic pollution arising from food systems is driving policies for reduction, removal, reuse and recycling, but literature on plastic uses and outcomes across subsectors is fragmented.
The IMMANA team at LSHTM, in partnership with the Campbell Collaboration, conducted a systematic scoping review to describe the extent, range and nature of published evidence since 2000 on seven major plastic types used at any point within food systems and their quantifiable effects on the environment, food security and human health. The review yielded 3,362 included studies, demonstrating a rapid increase in evidence during this period.
Although the majority of research focuses on agricultural production, relatively fewer consider retail, household and food waste disposal plastics. Gaps in the research include evidence from low- and middle-income countries, health or food security and/or economic outcomes generated from human population studies—and the subsequent environmental and human health effects.
A greater understanding of this disparate evidence landscape is essential to formulate coherent research strategies to inform potential policy actions and assess trade-offs across economic and environmental targets, human health and food security.
- Paper (2023): Human health effects of recycling and reusing food sector consumer plastics: A systematic review and meta-analysis of life cycle assessments
- Commentary paper (2023): Centring human health in the global plastics treaty: a call to action
- Paper (2021): A systematic scoping review of environmental, food security and health impacts of food system plastics
- Review data: Interactive evidence and gap map
- Paper (2021) Trust and responsibility in food systems transformation. Engaging with Big Food: marriage or mirage? (case study on plastics)
- Blog: Big Food has a big plastic problem. But it’s not just cups and straws
- Presentation: (What Works Global Summit 2020)
Plastics, circular economies and human health
Single-use plastics will drive a cumulative 12 billion metric tons of landfill and pollution by 2050 unless global systems of plastic production and material management are drastically reformed
Circular economy strategies are critical to reducing waste and promoting sustainable consumption of natural resources. Research is increasingly uncovering potential co-benefits of circular economies for other Sustainable Development Goals through reducing carbon emissions and job creation, though the public health implications remain underexplored. With less than a decade to achieve the SDGs, strategies should seek to benefit multiple targets and ensure that progress in one area does not damage that of another.
The European Commission describes life cycle assessments as “the best framework for assessing the potential environmental impacts of products currently available”
1. Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R. & Law, K. L. Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances 3, 19–24 (2017).
2. Commission of the European Communities. Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament — Integrated Product Policy, Building on Environmental Life-Cycle Thinking. vol. C80/39 (2003).
Interested in food system plastics? Get in touch!
If you are working in this space and would like to share your evidence through the ANH Academy please contact us at [email protected]. If you have something you'd like to work on collaboratively please contact [email protected].