Katie Vickery and Katrina Anderson discuss the use of plastic in packaging despite constant calls to remove it from the shelves.
The use of plastics in food packaging has been a huge topic in the media over the past year. The interest has partly stemmed from the depiction of how plastic pollution is harming our planet, in the BBC’s programme Blue Planet. However, it is a topic that the industry has actually been talking about for a long time now. It is also on the legislators’ agenda. In the latest budget, the UK government announced its intention to consult on a plastic packaging tax. The EU is already consulting on measures to restrict the use of single use plastics with a view to ensuring that all plastic packaging is recyclable by 2030. But the use of plastic is so ingrained in the food industry that it isn’t as simple as making a swap to another material and to abandon plastic completely would raise many more issues. It is important not to lose sight of the essential role plastic plays in a single-minded pursuit of reducing plastic waste. Plastic is one of the most versatile and useful materials we have created and has many uses in the industry. It plays a huge role in food safety and labelling. For consumers, plastic packaging means they receive the product they desire in the right condition, in good quality, uncontaminated and with no food hygiene issues. Equally, consumers want food manufacturers to use plastic responsibly so food manufacturers and retailers should consider other options where there isn’t a need for plastic or an alternative could be used. This is something that we are starting to see more of on the high street. Iceland have set themselves the admirable target of removing all plastic packaging from their own brand goods within the next five years. A north London supermarket, meanwhile, has become Britain’s first to introduce plastic-free zones, in a move campaigners believe will spur the giant chains to follow suit.
However, one of the challenges the larger supermarkets are going to face is whether there is enough packaging innovation to enable them to provide an effective compliant substitute for plastic. Currently, a lot of the technological developments that are promoted as an ‘alternative’ to plastics still break down into micro-plastics or other nasty bi-products that mean their sustainability credentials are not as good as they could be. There needs to be a realisation that plastic packaging is just one small part of the product cycle. From the moment a food manufacturer decides they want to produce a product – and they’re designing their packaging, they need to think quite carefully about the elements of that packaging. Are they actually ensuring it’s recyclable? Are they mixing different types of plastic? Or creating the packaging in such a way that it’s not very easy to recycle? Manufacturers must start thinking about this issue from the onset and consider tracking the journey that their packaging will take, right through to when it’s in the hands of the consumer – and beyond. Will it be easy for the consumer to get their plastics recycled? Another part of the consideration in the cycle is local authorities. While every local authority around the country runs some form of recycling scheme, there’s so much difference between them. The specifics of what you can and cannot recycle, in each different area, is extremely varied. This is a challenge for food manufacturers because, generally speaking, they don’t make packaging on a local basis; how are the manufacturers meant to ensure their packaging is recyclable everywhere? Certain manufacturers have gone down the route of saying you can return the packaging and they will recycle it for you. However, this won’t work for all consumers and the consequence will be that less packaging will get recycled. Many local authorities do not have the facilities to recycle plastics or, when the plastic is recycled, they are unable to produce a recycled product which is of the same or similar grade.
The plastics debate is here to stay and it’s a topic that will be discussed in the food sector for a long time yet. Until there are sensible, alternative solutions, it is important for the industry to consider how the cycle can be completed; ensuring that all the gaps through the plastic journey are filled so that plastic can be appropriately used in packaging with the peace of mind that it is going to be recycled at the other end, rather than end up in landfill or our oceans. The industry also needs to keep an eye on the impact of proposed legislation both at an EU and a UK level. Now is the moment for industry to participate in the UK & EU consultations and to help shape the legislation to ensure that we end up with a regime that genuinely encourages sustainability throughout the entire product cycle rather than a politically expedient quick fix.