July 24, 2024

The key to reducing plastic waste in the food sector without increasing wastage

As awareness of environmental issues continue to increase, Laura Taylor from allmanhall, the independently owned food procurement expert, examines how the food industry is reducing plastic waste, whilst ensuring that packaging still meets the standards required.

The global pandemic created many new opportunities in the way food was produced and supplied across the whole food sector, with a surge in takeaway options, grab and go services and letterbox deliveries. However, this resulted in an increased demand and excessive use of plastic food packaging, at a time when consumers were expecting manufacturers and retailers to lead the way in reducing single-use plastic. The campaign to reduce plastic is particularly driven by millennials and Generation Z, who, as Chelsey Wroe, Head of Sustainability for Heineken UK, explains: “expect brands to continue to improve their sustainability credentials and are more inclined to interact with the ones that do this.” Whilst it has been reported that food product innovation may have taken a side-line during the pandemic, the development of more sustainable packaging solutions does appear to be of high priority to manufacturers and retailers.

As a certified carbon-negative manufacturer, Real Wrap Company use sandwich and wrap boxes that are all plastic free. Replacing the usual plastic film with cellulose sourced from trees, this means that the whole box is easily recycled and can be put in the mixed or card recycling points. Following suit, retailer Aldi is also introducing a trial of fully recyclable sandwich packaging. Launching across two sandwich lines from September 2021, the sandwich boxes are made of recycled cardboard, with a paper-lined film rather than the usual plastic film window.

With paper and cardboard being the most recycled products across the UK and Europe, brands including Persil, Carlsberg and Absolut are developing paper-based bottles for the likes of laundry detergents, haircare and alcohol.

In confectionary, Nestlé has successfully moved to paper packaging for all Smarties products and the brand Kelloggs has also trialled paper containers as an alternative to its well-known Pringles can. Made from a combination of foil, cardboard, metal and plastic, the original packaging can be difficult to recycle through regular household recycling. However, it has been reported that whilst the paper cans are easier to recycle than their current can, it compromises on shelf-life with a reduced span of 15 months.

The Government hopes to use the tax system to encourage a reduction in single-use plastic waste, with the introduction of the Plastic Packaging Tax in April 2022.

A tax of £200 per metric tonne on plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled plastic will apply, both manufactured in and imported to the UK. It is defined as plastic packaging if it contains more plastic by weight than any other product.

However, actions to reduce single-use plastic whilst ensuring that food packaging still meets the standards required comes with numerous challenges. As the British Meat Industry explains, plastic is used in packaging as it is light, durable and has “superior barrier qualities” which have “improved food safety, extended shelf life and reduced food waste significantly over recent decades.” This is particularly true of plastic packaging used for meat which is a “high-moisture, perishable product.” Concerns have been raised that the pressure to increase the recycled content in packaging to more than 30% could result in alternative materials being used that reduce food shelf life and consequently cause higher food wastage.

Although it is relatively easy to add recycled components to rigid plastics such as trays, it is more difficult to add it to flexibles and films. As a food contact material, packaging is highly regulated, and any new developments need approval – a process that takes time. However, with the introduction of the plastic tax and the health of our planet at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it is inevitable that we will see further developments in alternatives to single-use plastic. Already we have seen a ban on single-use plastic stirrers and straws, and it is likely that plastic cutlery and plates will follow. With businesses pledging their commitment to making more sustainable choices, it seems there is much more to come in food packaging innovation.

Although the introduction of the plastic tax will affect the food industry, we are likely to see a much greater impact from the Extended Producer Responsibility modulated fees that will be introduced in 2023. With questions surrounding the abilities of the government-funded recycling infrastructure in the UK, this scheme would demand supplier and consumer support in managing and recycling packaging waste.

About allmanhall

Established in 2006, allmanhall is an independent, family owned and managed business providing expert food procurement and supply chain management, combined with hands-on catering and nutrition advice. Working in a partnership with its clients, allmanhall’s purpose is to deliver the best food, the best cost savings, and the best support, and is committed to a focus on sustainable food supply. Clients enjoy essential food cost savings as a result of allmanhall’s supplier negotiations. In addition to procurement support, allmanhall provides exceptional foodservice consultancy, including nutrition and dietetics support, headed up by allmanhall’s Registered Dietitian. allmanhall has been awarded the Best Food Procurement Specialists 2021 from the Southern Enterprise Awards body, plus the Customer Service Excellence Award 2021.