The packaging paradox

The packaging paradox: how organic food can face the challenge

The food system currently involves far too much packaging. There is an urgent priority to reduce the environmental impacts of packaging pollution on our oceans and soils.  

We have a packaging dilemma:  

  • We can’t live with it. Consumers have consistently put reducing impacts of packaging at the top of their environmental priorities since 2018. 
  • We can’t live without it. It has essential functions like protecting food in transit, extending shelf life, reducing waste, and preventing contamination.  

Finding ways to reduce packaging is central to any sustainable future

If there has to be packaging, it should be reusable or recyclable. But that’s not always easy. Often the barriers to recycling a material can be overcome if this is considered and prioritised in the design stage by the manufacturer. If your favourite product has packaging that cannot be recycled, why not contact the manufacturer and ask why? As a consumer, you have the power to drive change. 

In the organic sector, consumers agree that packaging is a priority. The 2024 Organic Market Report put ‘excess packaging and waste’ as the top consumer eco concern. 

Unique challenges for the organic sector 

The organic sector operates in a different way to other food and drink sectors. There is a legal requirement for organic products to be kept separate from non-organic to manage the risk of fraud. For most retailers the easy way to comply is packaging the product. This is why you might see organic apples in plastic next to non-organic unwrapped. Many suppliers and retailers are exploring alternatives such as stickers or netting, and we’re actively working with supermarkets and industry experts such as WRAP to address this barrier, encourage innovation and promote best practice.   

If you’re concerned about organic fresh produce wrapped in plastic, we recommend contacting the retailer directly as they are often highly responsive to customer’s demands.    

It’s also worth being aware that independent organic retailers are legally allowed to provide unwrapped organic produce, as are all the wonderful organic veg box schemes.   

What is the Soil Association doing?  

The Soil Association sets standards that are higher than the legal minimum for organic products. Our standards are the only organic standards in the UK that cover any aspect of packaging. From time to time we review these standards to ensure that they are still making the best possible impact on our world. 

We consulted on changes to our organic packaging standards in 2023, working with a group of independent experts to help oversee the process and make recommendations.  The review had the explicit purpose of

  • removing the worst plastic packaging from use
  • protecting consumers from harmful chemicals in packaging
  • reducing the risk of environmental damage from packaging materials

We received high-quality feedback from a wide range of stakeholders in the consultation, which has guided our decision-making process.

We're thrilled that our updated standards, published March 2024, will now restrict the use of plastics such as polystyrene and oxo-degradable due to their long-term effects on the environment. Paper and card will be sourced from responsible forest management systems, reducing deforestation risk. Harmful forever chemicals used in packaging will be restricted.

These interventions will help give confidence to citizens that organic food is packaged in a way that reflects the sustainability of the organic products themselves. Our hope, however, is that these standards go further, that they can set a precedent to other sectors, raise awareness to issues and drive innovation of the alternatives.  

Learn more about our approach to packaging

Soil Association will keep working with you to regenerate our world – action by action. It’s our view that a black-and-white approach isn’t necessarily helpful, and nor is a culture of blame. To minimise trade-offs, businesses need to be better informed, innovative, and open to new ways of doing things. At the Soil Association, we certainly don’t promise to have all the answers, but we are committed to working with partners, members, citizens, and licensed businesses as we develop solutions.