BY SAM JONES,
CUSTOMER SUSTAINABILITY MANAGER, DS SMITH
While the grocery sector accounts for about 70% of the packaging market, a recent report revealed almost a third of plastic packaging used by UK supermarkets is either non-recyclable through standard collection schemes or very difficult to recycle. This isn’t country specific – recycling processes are an issue worldwide.
Most plastic food packaging will have the word ‘recyclable’ on it, but this doesn’t necessarily always mean the packaging will be recycled. The actual process of recycling multi-material packaging can be time-consuming and expensive, and relies heavily on consumer behaviour and collection segregation.
Adopting one type of packaging
Many food products use a mix of packaging materials, for example microwaveable meals in supermarkets will use card, clear film, and black plastic, not all of which can be recycled. Even if they could, the actual process of recycling them would require the consumer to separate the materials so that the plastics can be reprocessed separately from the card. It’s not always necessary to use all three materials, and food brands can easily make a move toward adopting simplified forms of packaging, which use just one or two materials. This has seen many brands, including Waitrose, invest in innovative alternatives, such as its fibre-based ready meal tray which has purpose-made coating – simplifying its packaging to make it easier to recycle while moving away from the use of black plastic.
Tackling black plastic
Black plastic in general is an area where food brands can instantly improve the sustainability of their packaging. The reason for black plastic’s use over clear options are primarily aesthetic, but this type of plastic is a challenge to recycle with current technology. The black carbon pigments can’t be detected by the machines that sort plastics for recycling, meaning that recyclable material can only be diverted to energy from waste facilities or landfill. In most cases, there is no reason that the food packaging couldn’t be switched to alternative colours, which are more easily identifiable, meaning they could be more widely recycled, supported by the existing global infrastructure.
Harnessing the benefits of card and alternative materials
Although recycling facilities and the materials that can be recycled vary from country to country (and often even within countries), card and paper packaging can be recycled everywhere. Paper and card is the most recycled material in the world, and the only requirement for consumers is to ensure that the paper and cardboard they collect for recycling isn’t contaminated by food, or other recyclable streams like plastic, metals, or glass. As a result, 84.6% of all paper and cardboard packaging is currently recycled in Europe – the highest recycling rate of any material stream – compared to only 40.9% of plastic, which all too often ends up in the ocean.
Moving completely away from plastic won’t always be feasible or desirable in the food industry, but brands should look to adopt card and paper into their packaging strategies where possible, to use existing recycling infrastructure and help remove excess waste in the supply chain.
A trend which looks set to continue in the food sector is the move towards alternative packaging materials. Paper-based fibre moulds are now a popular substitute for plastic packaging and, although not widely available, products such as wood-based fibre bottles are starting to be produced as an alternative to plastic. Carlsberg for instance has recently unveiled a new design for a recyclable fibre-based beer bottle, while fibre-based egg cartons offer a simple switch for plastic containers.
That said, it’s important that any changes aren’t just a kneejerk reaction from brands in response to the recent resurgence of the plastic debate. Whilst the role of many single-use plastics is being heavily scrutinised, plastic packaging does still have a key role to play when it comes to product protection and longevity, for example in the transportation of heavy goods like beverages, so shouldn’t be automatically discounted. A good example of this is the returnable and reusable crates used for beer. These are used in a consistent, predictable, cyclical process between the store and beverage producer for several years (sometimes up to 17 years) and are therefore the most suitable option throughout its lifespan when compared to a corrugated alternative. Plus, at the end of their lifespan, they can be ground into pellets at the brewery and new crates can be created for the next 17 years.
Packaging strategies that are based around minimising both the brand’s and consumer’s carbon footprint and improving efficiency throughout the supply chain are essential in today’s climate where everyone is more aware of the challenges of recycling packaging. By being more selective about how, where and importantly why plastics are used within packaging, brands can work towards adopting more sustainable alternatives to reduce waste and increase the amount of packaging recycled across Europe.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2019