Cut through the layers

Materials World magazine
1 Apr 2018

Two things have become clear in the current debate around plastic packaging – consumers need to value the material more and producers need to be incentivised to use a higher amount of recycled content. Ines Nastali reports.

In addition to increasing the recycling rate in the UK, and globally, ‘producers also need to stop sending waste abroad,’ said Helen Jordan, Issues Executive, British Plastics Federation, when she spoke at the Institute’s Materials Protecting the Environment seminar in February. Support for this was voiced at the Packaging Innovations show in Birmingham, which also took place in February. ‘What are we doing sending waste to China?’ asked Ian Schofield, Own Label and Packaging Manager at supermarket chain Iceland. His speech was part of the show’s big plastics debate and highly anticipated, given the current turmoil around the material, and also because the supermarket vouched to go plastic-free with its own brand products by 2023, thereby hoping to avoid 60t of plastic. 

Defrost the packaging

While Schofield doesn’t approve of sending waste abroad, he also isn’t convinced about the UK’s recycling system. ‘I have nothing to prove that biodegradable and oxodegradable plastics actually break down, so I still wait for test results to come through on this,’ he said, adding ‘it turns out, most things don’t get recycled at all’.

But, before the supermarket focuses on what happens to their products post-use, it is looking at developing plastic alternatives. Wanting to avoid heavier packaging, which should be feasible, unless ‘you replace everything with glass,’ Schofield said. The frozen goods giant also needs to ensure food safety and avoid the creation of food waste induced by bad packaging. ‘We might compromise shelf life along the way,’ Schofield admitted, knowing that the company’s endeavour has to happen without creating additional costs on any side. ‘The consumer is not going to pay for this,’ he remarked. 

Iceland first looked at all unnecessary plastic to cut, and now plans to use bamboo and sugar beat to create their ready meal trays and pulp packaging for vegetables, chicken, and fish bags. ‘Maybe the customer will have to decant some of the food for microwaving,’ Schofield said, in case some of the packaging doesn’t have the same heat properties as plastic. The packaging manager also spoke on initiatives outside the supermarket’s direct influence. He endorsed the planned bottle deposit scheme that has been discussed by the UK government. ‘It will be an absolute pain in the neck to put up deposit scheme collectors for bottles in our markets, but it’s worth it.’

Make it better

Currently, demand for recycled plastic is only around 6% in Europe (see Materials World, March 2018). One of the companies that currently works on upping its recycling game is supermarket chain Co-op. By 2020, 80% of product packaging is supposed to be recyclable, and therefore, the company has started to convert packaging using one polymer only. ‘We removed the PE sealant layer of our mince beef and replaced it with an APET structure,’ said Robert Thompson, Packaging Technologist at Co-op, at the Packaging Innovations conference. Further changes include the replacement of polystyrene, for example used in the discs for frozen pizza, with card. Thompson further asked other packaging producers if they ‘really need a PET sealing on your plastic tray?’

The supermarket’s first results show 69% of their products being recyclable in the beginning of 2017, compared to 46% in February 2016.

Make it easy

Looking at the root causes for the bad recycling rates, a panel at Packaging Innovations, criticised why it is being made so easy for people to litter, thinking compostable means it will disappear when thrown away. Martin Kersh, Executive Director of the Foodservice Packaging Association said, ‘There are too many solutions – biodegradable and compostable – and people are confused as to what they can do with the packaging, recycle it or not.’

At the same time, he called on the government for more producer responsibility and more regulation to produce packaging as easily as possible, for example cutting out multi-layer options. 

Speaking on the topic of consumer confusion, a representative from online supermarket Ocado said, ‘We used to get complaints that our avocados were too ripe, so we spent money on research to find a packaging solution to prevent this.’ Ocado chose a plastic packaging and now, she added, the avocados are perfectly ripe when the costumer wants them to be, but Ocado receives complaints about the amount of plastic used for the product delivery.

While industry already shows goodwill and initiative to cut unnecessary plastic and has upped recycling rates already, the saga continues with pushing design of easy-to-recycle packaging and plastic alternatives in future.