Waste not, wrap not? Environmentalists rip plan to cover produce in plastic

Waste not, wrap not? Environmentalists rip plan to cover produce in plastic

Agriculture Ministry initiative comes as annual report finds Israel wastes 2.5 million tons of food each year, worth NIS 19.7 billion ($5.5 billion)

Tomatoes wrapped in plastic. (DutchScenery/ iStock/Getty)
Tomatoes wrapped in plastic. (DutchScenery/ iStock/Getty)

A new Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry initiative to pay supermarkets to wrap fruits and vegetables in plastic in order to cut down on spoiled produce has environmentalists fuming over the mountains of single-use waste that would fill supermarket aisles.

The Ministry announced last week that a new initiative to “revolutionize food waste in Israel” by packaging fruit and vegetables in small packages. The Ministry argued that plastic packaging will extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables, reducing food waste at supermarkets by 10 to 15 percent and food waste at home by 20 to 25%.

“Everyone who has a bit of a brain will understand that wrapping things in plastic won’t minimize food waste, because it will require people to buy more than they want,” said Karen Tamari, a community organizer at Green Course, an environmental organization. “Fruit and vegetables already have a protective layer. It’s from nature.”

“We think this initiative is coming from the right place, the desire to end food waste is very environmentally friendly and overall good,” said Maya Jacobs, the CEO of Zalul, a maritime and environmental organization that specializes in plastic waste issues. “But the way they’re doing it is problematic, you can’t take one huge problem and switch it for another problem.”

She said there is a global movement to minimize plastic packaging, and the Ministry’s plan goes contrary to almost every other developed country.

“By 2050, there will be more plastic in the sea than animals,” she said. “Plastic accumulates, and everything plastic made since the 1940s is still in its original form or has broken up into microplastics [minute pieces of plastic that are swallowed by fish and other animals and enter into the food chain].”

Jacobs said environmental organizations already sent a joint letter to the Agriculture Ministry, and petitions opposing the measure garnered thousands of signatures. “If they want war, bring it on,” she said.

On Tuesday, Leket Israel and the BDO consulting firm released their annual food waste survey, which found that 35% of food produced in Israel ends up being thrown out.

This amounts to 2.5 million tons (5.5 billion pounds), valued at approximately NIS 19.7 billion (US $5.5 billion), according to the organization’s annual Food Waste and Rescue Report.

Food waste refers to food that is lost somewhere along the supply chain, from not getting picked in the field to spoiling on the supermarket shelf to getting tossed after the expiration date in somebody’s home.

An infographic provided by Leket Israel details how much food is wasted in the retail and distribution of food in Israel. (courtesy Leket Israel)

The amount of food waste in Israel has held steady since the organization first started measuring the issue four years ago. Israel is the second most wasteful country in the OECD after Denmark when it comes to food.

The average Israeli household throws out NIS 3,200 ($890) of food per year, equivalent to about a month and a half of a family’s food expenditure, the report found. The majority of pitched foods are fruits and vegetables. About 23% of the fruits and vegetables that Israelis buy are not eaten.

Gidi Kroch, the CEO of Leket Israel, said government action is needed in order to drastically change the amount of food wasted in Israel, but he worried that the Agricultural Ministry’s plastic packaging initiative would only be mildly successful at reducing fruit and vegetable waste.

“It is a fact that packaged fresh produce retains better than non packaged goods,” said Kroch. “But plastic packaging also has an impact on the environment.”

Israelis grocery shopping food for the Passover holiday at the Rami Levi supermarket in Talpiot, Jerusalem on April 20, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

More important than packaging, he said, are actions that people can take like cooking the right amount of food, and going grocery shopping with a list to avoid impulse purchases. The government can also take concrete steps to minimize food waste, such as improving the expiration date system so that it accurately reflects when food is no longer safe for consumption, rather than a suggested sell by date. Other steps include making it easier for institutions to find places to donate unused food, which got a big boost from the Knesset’s October 2018 approval of the Food Donation Act, similar to the Good Samaritan Act in the US, which allows institutions to donate food without fear of legal repercussions.

The Ministry of Agriculture said pre-wrapped fruit and vegetables would extend shelf life, cutting down on waste and unnecessary handling of produce, which can be unsanitary. According to the Ministry, the highest food loss at the retail stage comes from bananas (17% spoilage rate at supermarkets), followed by tomatoes (16% spoilage rate) and cucumbers (15% spoilage rate). Packaging will protect the produce from bumps and bruises and allow for better labeling of where the produce was grown and packaged.

According to the ministry, large supermarket chains account for approximately 60% of food purchases in Israel, meaning that one of the best ways to influence change across the country is to start with the large supermarkets. According to the plan, after the period for public comment ends on March 10, the Ministry will put out a call for supermarkets that are interested in participating. In the current draft of the initiative, the Ministry will give participating supermarkets grants totaling millions of shekels in order for supermarkets to wrap produce in plastic.

But supermarket mogul Rami Levi, CEO of one of the largest supermarket chains in Israel, said he did not support the Ministry’s initiative. “If they think it will minimize the amount of food we will throw away, I think they are wrong,” he said. “Some customers want to buy packaged fruits and vegetables, and some do not. It’s possible to do both, but to have everything wrapped is not a good idea.”

Rami Levy in one of his Jerusalem supermarkets on June 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Levi said food spoilage at the retail level is more connected to price than to packaging. “If you sell everything, there’s no waste,” he said.

“It will be a big mess with all of that plastic, there are a lot of costs, not just for the supermarket, but also concerns that the environment can suffer from this,” Levi added.

Green Course held a protest at a Tel Aviv Shufersal on Monday morning, because the store already uses large amounts of plastic packaging for produce.

“As consumers we are angry, we won’t support this,” said Tamari, of Green Course. “The agriculture and the environment go together. The ministry wants to pay millions of shekels to supermarkets to wrap things in plastic? It’s not thinking about the negative impact of the pollution. It’s a lack of responsibility, a lack of caring, it simply doesn’t make sense. They’re making a joke out of themselves.”

הגענו לסניף שופרסל אבן גבירול בת"א כדי להבהיר להם ולמשרד החקלאות שאיננו מוכנים להשתלטות הפלסטיקים החד פעמיים והעטיפות שהם מעוניינים לכפות עלינו כצרכנים.למי שפספס/ה – שופרסל התחילו לשווק את כל הפירות והירקות עטופים בפלסטיק באריזות מוכנות מראש, כך שהצרכנים מחויבים (!) לקנות באריזות ויפסידו פעמיים: גם ידחפו להם פירות וירקות בכמויות גבוהות ממה שהם צריכים, וגם יחייבו אותם לזהם את הסביבה. בימים האחרונים גם משרד החקלאות הודיע על רפורמה חדשה שתחייב את דיווק הפירות והירקות באריזות פלסטיק חד פעמי ברשתות נוספות. הצטרפו אלינו, היכנסו לקישור ושלחו מייל למשרד החקלאות -> https://goo.gl/Bh3Vfkנחנקנו!משרד החקלאות ופיתוח הכפר

Posted by ‎מגמה ירוקה – Green Course‎ on Monday, 4 March 2019

Kroch, of Leket Israel, hopes that regardless of the packaging policy, Israelis will wake up to the economic cost of food waste. “[Each family] throws away 1.5 months of food per year,” he said. “It’s just incredible that this is happening.”

Manufacturers account for food loss when setting prices for food, Kroch explained. “Consumers suffer these costs,” said Kroch. “If there was no food waste, the cost of living would drop.” Leket estimates that manufacturers add 11% to the final cost of food in order to account for food waste.

There is good news, Kroch said: almost half of the food lost in Israel is rescuable with improved infrastructure and logistics. In addition to tracking food waste, Leket Israel also tries to redirect food from the landfill to 200 charities around Israel. In 2018, Leket Israel rescued 2.2 million cooked meals from IDF army bases, hotels, catering companies, and restaurants, and 15,500 tons of agricultural produce worth NIS 150 million ($41.5 million). The industry with the highest level of food waste is the events industry, where 43% of food from events is wasted.

Leket Israel collected 2.2 million cooked meals from institutions in 2018 to donate to soup kitchens and charities across Israel, like this archive photo of volunteers collecting uneaten food from a hotel. (courtesy Leket Israel)

“We see cities across the world that are going in the opposite direction [of the ministry’s initiative],” said Jacobs, of the Zalul environmental organization. “We need to remember, there is a need to change our habits. We are a generation that needs to choose life.”

“The Agriculture Ministry shouldn’t just exchange one problem for another,” Jacobs added. “They need to look for more sustainable solutions, that might be more complicated, but ones which will actually help the world and not hurt it.

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