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

Plastics logic model















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.

Key resources

What Works Global Summit (WWGS)












Plastics, circular economies and human health

Circular economy Megan








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 reformed1. Food packaging alone accounts for around 16% of plastics produced and is a central focus of circular economy policies promoting reuse and recycling1.

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”2 and can also be used to study the indirect effects on human health. Our work will systematically review life cycle assessments to evaluate evidence for human health co-benefits and trade-offs associated with reuse and recycling of plastic food packaging from production to end-of-life disposal.

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).

Read more in the registered review protocol



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].