Leading the charge towards a circular economy

Materials World magazine
31 Mar 2017

Lubna Edwards looks at the role of plastic packaging today and in the future.

As well as being reusable and recyclable, today’s fresh food packaging solutions must address current and future global environmental, social trends and challenges to deliver real value for a circular economy. Population growth is on the increase, income is growing and consumption of resources is exceeding supply. Meeting the 24/7 consumer convenience lifestyle, such as food service on the go, 24-hour food access, increase in e-commerce, as well as accessing seasonal foods all year round, are all trends that packaging can contribute to.

The results of a recent survey by Euromonitor reported that 64% of respondents try to have a positive impact on the environment on a daily basis. As consumer trends continue to lean towards a sense of greater environmental responsibility, packaging innovators are developing sustainable solutions on a much wider scale.

The challenge for packaging designers and manufacturers is to demonstrate value to a pack’s core protective and preservative function and to present fresh food packaging as a valuable resource, rather than simply a by-product to be discarded as waste. Within LINPAC packaging is designed around protecting and preserving the food product, while trying to maintain a closed loop system. When considering packaging innovation, thought must be given to the packaged food product as a whole system – not just the packaging in isolation. 

Smarter solutions to global challenges

To meet the challenges of current and future generations, a fresh food plastic pack must add further value beyond recyclability. That value can form in the reduction of food waste. As an industry, we need to look at the bigger picture. Over a third of edible food is wasted, and yet millions of people are starving. We do not need to grow more food, we just need to waste less and enable the supply and distribution of safe, fresh food. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says that if food wastage was reduced by 25%, there would be enough food to feed all the malnourished people in the world.

In the UK alone, households throw away more than 4.2 million tonnes of avoidable food and drink waste annually, according to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). Smart packaging solutions can help to solve the issue when designed with features such as compartmental elements to aid portion control or modified atmospheres to extend shelf life. Contrary to common misconceptions, food is a greater contributor to the waste stream than packaging. In thinking outside the box – or pack, in this case – retailers, brands and packaging converters can address both food and packaging waste to provide value-added solutions to wider environmental and social challenges.

Collaboration between manufacturers, brand owners and retailers is an important part of this process to produce packaging that fulfils the need of the consumer. Statistics and data gained from the food waste reduction campaigns of major retailers in the UK can be passed onto converters to generate solutions to food transportation and preservation. Retailers and brand owners can also now communicate directly with consumers via social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. This gives industry the ability to understand what the consumer wants from packaging in terms of waste reduction features and can incorporate it directly into the product development process. It becomes a powerful tool when striving to deliver a comprehensive, holistic solution to sustainability.

Resource efficiency 

Producing fit-for-purpose, optimised, recyclable packaging to address portion control, keep food fresh and extend shelf life could lead to a viable sustainable solution. However, introducing complex innovative sustainability features to plastic packaging can often result in an increase in its weight. The overall carbon footprint of a pack is important to consider when looking at the volume of food waste that can be prevented or the increase in recycled content. 

A recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) tray is manufactured using in excess of 95% post-consumer, super-cleaned recyclate and can be recycled back into the food packaging chain at the end of its service life. rPET laminated to polyethylene (PE) can also be sealed at reduced temperatures in comparison to the polypropylene (PP) equivalent, and as a result, use less energy. To seal 70 million rPET/PE trays at 200°C requires 131,000kWh, compared with PP, which requires more than 195,000kWh.

Resource efficiency is particularly relevant to retailers. For the first time this year, the UK’s top 10 supermarkets disclosed their UK-wide food donation data in a survey carried out by the Evening Standard. The total combined food surplus donated was 3.2% amounting to 7,806 tonnes. As supermarkets outline their commitment to improving this figure, the development of smarter packaging to offer portion control could reduce the surplus food at the end of the supply chain.

Food waste reduction by design 

To meet the challenges of today’s market, while keeping the challenges of future generations in mind, LINPAC has developed a poultry split pack in collaboration with Tesco and Cargill to address portion control and food waste. The collaboration designed a perforated modified atmosphere pack (MAP) that splits into two compartments, allowing consumers to use one portion and keep the rest sealed for later. 

The LINPAC tray has increased in weight by six grammes per pack. However, to offset this, the use of food-safe recycled content from bottle waste has increased by more than 91%. The pack is also predicted to make a significant contribution to food waste prevention, as well as a substantial carbon equivalent savings. Calculations based on an average tonne of household food waste prevented by WRAP have indicated that the packs could help prevent 1,370 tonnes of chicken from going to waste every year with an associated 5,490 tonne reduction in the carbon footprint. Extrapolated across a number of products, an estimated potential poultry waste prevention of 3,100 tonnes and a carbon saving of 12,400 tonnes of carbon equivalent can be reached.

The environmental impact of food wasted exceeds the carbon footprint of the package used to protect the food, as it moves through the food supply chain, from farm to fork. It’s not just the food wasted, but the resources used to grow, process, transport, store and cook the food.

The rate of recycling 

Rigid, food-safe plastic packaging from recycled content can go on to be recycled post-consumer use and helps to address packaging waste to create a closed-loop recycling system. However, localised infrastructure constraints, coupled with the need for consumer education, can still present a challenge to packaging re-entering the cycle. The RECOUP 2016 UK Household Plastics Collection Survey reveals pots, tubs and trays make up more than two-thirds of plastic collected in the UK, against 68% plastic bottles. The report also highlights that just 20% of local authorities collect plastic film. 

The rate of collections in the UK is slowing down. However, from 2006–14, there has been a 64% increase in recycling, 46% increase in energy recovery and 38% reduction in landfill of plastics packaging in the EU. It’s encouraging to see that engagement with recycling is increasing. RECOUP believes that educating consumers about collections to eliminate misconceptions and contradictions about the packaging industry is now paramount to raise recycling figures further.

Manufacturers can support this by innovating products for ease of recycling throughout the chain. For example, the use of specialised pack sealants that can be removed in the hot wash process employed by Europe’s PET recycling companies can result in trays such as the LINPAC Rfresh Elite. The tray yields up to 100% rPET post-consumer, which can then re-enter the supply chain to contribute to a closed-loop cycle. 

By demonstrating the value of packaging as a resource, rather than a by-product, the packaging industry has the power to lead the charge towards a truly circular economy.

Lubna Edwards has 19 years of experience in the field of sustainability leadership. Her work at LINPAC involves delivering packaging sustainability strategies to address global challenges such as resource scarcity and food waste to contribute to a circular economy.