BY NEIL SHACKLETON
FOUNDER OF MEDOOLA
Neil Shackleton, the founder of packaging consultancy Medoola, explores the headline-generating expectations of plastic packaging and if they are realistic changes that the food and beverage industry can implement for the benefit of everyone concerned.
At the start of 2018, packaging made the front page. Driven by stark images from the world of our own wastefulness, packaging was singled out, front and centre for all to see. What has followed ever since has been quite astounding.
The media war on packaging has addressed quite a few issues that quite frankly, we’ve all tried to ignore for some time.
It is no fabrication to say that plastic materials have been champions of food and beverage manufacturing for many years thanks to its durability and cost. It is also fair to say that at one point, several well-known products were overly packaged – think Easter eggs.
However, consumers are fighting for much more, now calling for a plastic-free life entirely. This has swiftly moved sustainable packaging solutions right back to the top of the agenda. The fear is that knee-jerk reactions could cause new issues later down the line, but ignoring it could impact a brand’s reputation.
The issue with all of this is the perception of the problem itself. Perhaps the single most important quote so far was based on plastic but is applicable to all materials; quite simply ‘it cannot walk into the sea by itself’.
We all have the power to make choices to stop waste from entering the oceans rather than directing our blame to it. We also have the power to make responsible changes that allow our supply chains to work just as effectively.
To make this happen, however, requires planning, strategy and time.
The UK governments are right to implement plans to ban plastic straws and for the EU directive to ban all defined single-use plastic (where alternatives are available). But that doesn’t help the food and beverage industry, it only provides a plaster to a much larger problem.
So before we get into the discussion around single-use, recycling and landfill, we need to understand that these are just bit parts of sustainable strategy and that there are realistic ways and means to implement practical changes.
Food & Beverage Sustainability
Sustainability is about reducing the total environmental impact of a product. This is not a one-size fits all solution, which means that every manufacturer needs to look at their product’s packaging life cycle individually to ascertain what can and cannot realistically be adapted.
The most common question we get asked at Medoola more than any other is about what material is best for a sustainable initiative. My standard response is:
“In order to define the path ahead, we need to understand where we are now.”
Moving material type to generate an improvement is not always the answer. Nor, is it a better environmental decision to move from a landfill situation to a recyclable or compostable alternative – controversial, but accurate.
Here’s the myth buster, virtually all plastics can be recycled. Yes, you heard that right. This shouldn’t allow us to breathe a huge sigh of relief, but to think, if my material can be recycled, then why isn’t it?
The answer is economics. There are value streams of a plastic type that encourage good profit and there are those that offer little. Multi-laminate confectionery films fall into the latter for example, so despite the initiative around this from Walkers recently, it will need huge volume to deliver some tangible results for the converter to return any kind of profit.
Recycling. Right or wrong?
It is also important to understand recycling is not always the most sustainable initiative. Consider the UK, which currently holds around 360,000 tonnes capacity to recycle plastics. If we produce more right now, its likely destination lies overseas until our infrastructure can develop further. Even in developed nations like the UK, this takes time and of course, investment.
Landfill produce may in some cases prove more environmentally efficient and with emerging material developments like Bio-Degradable Plastics, we can actually witness how these new materials will degrade in such conditions. Microplastics are a huge issue, so we need to ensure that bio-degradable options don’t add additional toxins to the land and sea.
There has always been the barrier of cost when considering more sustainable material options. Eco-friendly materials for packaging have, in the main, come at a premium price. Is this a price you are willing to pay? You should if the material is right for your product and its life cycle. What you as a business has to decide is who incurs the cost. Would it be the business, the retailer or the consumer?
All these topics simply lead back to one thing. Develop sustainable packaging initiatives that are backed by substance and fact. Avoid the targets and front page winning headlines until this is done. That way you can state your target, but also HOW you will reach that target (which is the missing component from many a news story at the moment).
It’s all about packaging life cycles
Understanding the complete footprint of current packaging processes and materials, then plotting a strategy to lower the overall environmental footprint is known as Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).
LCA has been widely used in product activity and is now a tool that can be utilised for packaging to the same effect. The analysis is about determining the total environmental footprint of a single material. For packaging, this is about calculating the impact from the raw state through to the end of life.
In this way, you begin to see different environmental aspects that are all part of the full environmental footprint of each packaging decision. Greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, non-renewable energy, land use, and ecosphere impacts, for example, are all clearly defined.
The end result is a complete and compelling justification of every packaging choice you make, both now and in the future. This becomes the key to future success.
Plan, plan, plan
So, are expected changes to plastic packaging realistic for the food and beverage industry? Yes, but avoid the knee-jerk reaction and build a strategy that works for your brand, products and business first. Understanding that the impact is unique to your own supply chain and being in control of the next steps is good for both your business and the end consumers.
Considering the optimisation of materials for your product is good business sense but this is nothing new. It is more a case of embracing sustainability alongside the considerations of product wastage in achieving the best solution for your business.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020