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Plastic - The Material that changed the way we live

This photograph was taken 74 years ago (that’s me ‘D’). It was taken at a time when food was scarce and food waste was an inevitable fact of life. There were no fridges, no freezers, and no plastic packaging! Plastic changed all that: -

74 years ago, UK food rationing was at its height with each individual allowed each week just,

And meat to the value of 1s 2 pence (6p)!

(Imagine a family today having to live on this ration)

Despite these low rations, food shopping had to be 2-3 times per week, particularly in summer, as perishable food could not be stored for more than a few days. Most houses at best had a concrete shelf either in the pantry or in the cellar, where perishable food was kept to try and keep it edible for longer.

Meat, bacon, bread, butter, and margarine could be stored for only 3-4 days before deteriorating, whilst eggs and milk lasted a few days longer. There were industrial fridges in butchers and dairy shops, but domestic fridges did not really come into widespread use until the 1960’s. The replacement of all metal fridges with plastic interiors was a major technological development which reduced their weight and cost whilst freezers did not arrive until the 1970’s. Thus, despite food shortages in the 1940’s and 50’s food waste was common.

Damaged fruit, apples, pears, plums, strawberries, and other soft fruits were given away daily to children, as bulk packaging, in large boxes ripened food quicker and as well as causing damage. Similarly, broken biscuits were another regular give away to children, as they were packaged together in large 300mm square tins, thus, resulting in a residue of broken biscuits and crumbs at the bottom of every tin. Even some sweets in large glass jars, could become unsalable as they became stuck together. 

Contrast the shopping experience of today with that of 74 years ago, Supermarkets now contain fresh food for all occasions, predominantly packaged, presented, and preserved in plastic for maximum convenience along whilst virtually everyone has fridges and freezers. It is the development of plastic including plastic packaging that has transformed our food shopping experience, for example.

In summary, plastic packaging along with the introduction of the plastic lined fridge has not only created the Supermarkets but it has also transformed the way we live, eat, and shop. It has enabled Supermarkets to grow to a level where they dominate food retailing. Plastic packaging now enables them to bring in food from around the world daily on to our doorstep, including all year-round fruit, nuts, snack foods, meat, and fish.

Looking Back

Looking back 74 years to the time when the average UK household had to get by with so little to eat, it would have been difficult for those young boys in the picture to imagine there would come a time when the UK wasted 10 million tonnes a year of food, particularly wasted bread.

Both food and packaging technology have been developed beyond recognition over the intervening years, to keep our food edible for longer, yet food waste continues to be with us. They would also find it unbelievable to understand why with 10 million tonnes of food going to waste, every year the media had greater concerns with what happens to the plastic packaging waste, rather than all that food waste. Unbelievable!!                  

As ever, any thoughts you may have on any of the items mentioned would be welcome, and why not join me on LinkedIn for more regular updates.



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Alan Shepherd

I really agree wholeheartedly. I know there is a lot of discarded rubbish which needs to be addressed, but don’t blame it on the plastic.

Susan Staff

The excessive food wastage in "civilised" society nowadays is an utter outrage. Thank goodness we have plastic packaging to preserve food as long as possible. But over-production and over-purchasing are massive problems. No one nowadays could even imagine living on those rations. Many would assert that it was against their human rights 🙄 Thank you for sharing you photo and those life extensions.

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