How a circular economy is feeding plastic to our pigs

Standing there for a moment over the bin I try and decide whether the packaging my sausages were nestled in can be recycled. What hadn’t occurred to me was whether the sausages themselves may contain plastic and that I may be about to eat some. That was until I joined nearly 5 million other UK viewers on the sofa to watch Sunday night’s Countryfile.

Still from BBC of small holder with his pig
Small holder Andrew Rock with BBC Countryfile’s Tom Heap and one of his pigs. Image source: BBC iPlayer

Presenter Tom Heap visited a small holder in Lincolnshire who was concerned that he was finding flecks of plastics in his pig feed. “I contacted the manufacturer fully expecting them to investigate it and find out it was a process error,” Andrew Rock explained. “But they told me it was bakery waste or biscuit meal.”

From here we learned that some pig feed is produced from food waste, namely biscuits, noodles and cakes. In a cost-saving measure, packets of your favourite but unwanted biscuits are thrown into the food processor, packaging and all. At a biscuit meal production plant Paul Featherstone of the UK Former Foodstuffs Processors Association (UKFFPA) was asked why they didn’t employ people to remove the packaging “We just couldn’t afford the volume of labour to process the products we’ve got to in the timescale we’ve got to.”

Still from BBC of food waste
Food waste at a processing plant which will be used to make animal feed. Image source: BBC iPlayer

So is the UKFFPA and its members side-stepping our food safety legislation? Well from watching the programme and reading other articles about this issue you might believe that this process is totally within the rules. It has been quoted that the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) allows up to 0.15% of this kind of feed to be packaging. A Guardian piece states that the official EU limited is zero, but in practice most countries also apply the 0.15% limit, in part due to the practicalities and lack of agreement on the actual risks that may be associated with it. It is difficult to find this figure clearly stated on the FSA website. A 2016 report on risks of the use of recycled waste-derived materials does say “the UK have introduced a de facto tolerance of 0.15% but the EU are developing legislation on tolerance levels.” So it’s not law, which leads me to question how compliant these animal feed producers are and what testing they have in place to monitor the quantity of packaging in their feed before selling to the likes of Andrew Rock. When showed a sample of pellets containing blue and red flecks of plastic, Mr Featherstone said it was “not an ideal situation” and “something’s probably gone wrong in the manufacturing process.”

Paul Featherstone is also Group Director of animal feed producer SugaRich.

Now let’s do some maths. Pigs reared for human consumption eat varying amounts according to their age and how long before they are slaughtered. Towards the end of their lives they might be on 3-4kg of feed per day. That’s potentially 6g of biscuit packaging a day. Asda’s single-use plastic bags (which they no longer use) weighed 6.1g.

Admittedly most of this will leave the pig from the opposite end it went in. Overlooking the potential environmental impacts of plastic piggy poo, there is evidence that some plastic will cross from the digestive system into the blood stream. This is now in the form of microplastic or nanoplastic. There are many questions you may now be thinking. What harm does this do to the pig? How much plastic ends up in my bacon? What about those chemical additives that leak out of plastics? Science doesn’t really know.

There’s been a fair amount of research to try and understand the impact of plastic on aquatic life and potential risks to human health, but there are many gaps. What’s more, it is difficult to isolate the impact of the microplastics that might be inside us as a result of eating fish and shellfish, from inhaling it, sprinkling it on our food in sea salt, or, from eating pork. We may start to feel the situation is hopeless; the plastic is everywhere!

The reason that UKFFPA exists is to address the need to reduce food waste. Globally about one third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted, some of that before it even gets to leave the factory. In the UK, over 650,000 tonnes of former foodstuffs are used to create livestock feed worth £110 million. That includes food with incorrect labels, over-ordered ingredients, products that come out the wrong colour or shape, inaccurate demand forecasting and so on. It is illegal, however, to feed pigs kitchen or catering waste. The use of pig swill was banned in 2003 following the UK outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001. It seems a sensible idea then to divert the excess Christmas cakes and Easter bunny biscuits to our pig farmers. Prevent 650,000 tonnes of food going to landfill and help feed our hungry pigs.

Children are apparently suffering anxiety as a result of the current and future impacts of climate change. But I fear all of us are now facing tough decisions related to all aspects of our daily lives. So as I hover by the bins again (general one, recycling one and food waste one), with a full English breakfast on the go, I ponder what I should worry about most. The pesticides used in the production of my tomatoes? The CO2 released in the making of my hash browns? The welfare of the chickens that laid my eggs? Or, the possibility of plastic in my pork?

Pig eating some food
Image source: BBC iPlayer