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 - across its entire lifecycle - is a problem both of and for food systems. Therefore, addressing the plastic issue must be central among efforts to make food systems more healthy, sustainable and just.

Our work in IMMANA focuses on four interlinking areas: 

  • Characterising the impacts and trade-offs associated with food system plastics
  • Building evidence and awareness of the human health effects of plastics and strategies to reduce plastic pollution. 
  • Exploring the political economy of food system plastics 
  • Engaging in policy processes, such as the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution, otherwise known as the Global Plastics Treaty



Characterising the impacts and trade-offs associated with food system plastics

A greater understanding of the evidence landscape on food system plastics is essential to formulating coherent research strategies to inform policy actions and assess trade-offs across the environment, human health and food security. To begin addressing this, IMMANA researchers and collaborators 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 found critical gaps, including a lack of evidence from low- and middle-income countries, as well as studies linking specific plastic uses to health outcomes in human populations.

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Building evidence and awareness of the human health effects of plastics and strategies to reduce plastic pollution
Plastics LCA icon

IMMANA researchers are conducting novel quantitative analyses, modelling global projections of plastic production and scenarios of plastic material management, to explore and estimate the global health impacts associated with emissions across plastic life cycles. The approach combines systems thinking, environmental assessment of impacts on climate change, air pollution, environmental toxicity and water shortages and holistic analyses of global health burdens associated with plastics from production to pollution. IMMANA hopes to support advocacy for eliminating plastic pollution and evidence-based policy-decision making that accounts for the global health impacts of this interconnection planetary health challenge.

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Exploring the political economy of food system plastics 
Plastics icon political economy

Power dynamics play a significant role in shaping the global food system. IMMANA researchers explore some of these dynamics in relation to the plastic problem, to better understand the barriers to progressive policies that may produce equitable access to more healthy, sustainable and just diets. 

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Engaging in policy processes
Plastics icon treaty

In 2022, the UN Environment Assembly adopted a historic resolution to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. "The instrument" - or 'Global Plastics Treaty' is to be based on a comprehensive approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastic, including its production, design, and disposal. Since 2023, IMMANA has been engaging in the Plastics Treaty with the aim of ensuring that human health and food systems are accounted for in negotiations. Megan Deeney and Joe Yates do this primarily through their membership of the Scientists' Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty - an international network of diverse, independent scientific and technical experts seeking to contribute with summaries and interpretations of scientific knowledge to decision makers and the public involved in the negotiations towards a global agreement to end plastic pollution. Joe and Megan co-lead Working Group 7 on food system plastics.

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        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 or propose a new collaboration, please contact us at [email protected].