Supermarket giant Tesco recently announced plans to remove plastic shrink wrap from all its multipack tins in a move to reduce packaging waste by 350 tonnes per year and significantly reduce its CO2 emissions. While these efforts should be applauded, this move fails to address a larger issue – the amount of waste generated by secondary packaging.
If businesses are serious about reducing the amount of packaging they use and minimising their carbon footprint – the main cause of climate change – they need to consider the environmental impact of their secondary packaging solutions.
Unlike multipacks, secondary packaging – which protects products during transit and enables them to be handled efficiently – is a necessary part of the food and drink industry’s supply chain. Secondary packaging cases typically consist of corrugated cardboard boxes and plastic shrink wrap and billions of them are required each year to safely transport products from manufacturers to retailers’ shelves.
Unfortunately, both corrugated cardboard and plastic can damage the environment. Although cardboard is often heralded as a more environmentally friendly alternative to plastic because it is biodegradable, it has a huge carbon footprint because of the enormous amounts of energy required to create it. To produce corrugated cardboard, trees need to be harvested, shipped to pulp mills, pulped, formed, pressed, dried and rolled, before being sent to corrugating plants and made into cardboard. Then, when the cardboard decomposes, carbon is released back into the atmosphere, contributing to rising global temperatures.
Shrink wrap plastic has a lower carbon footprint but it can be devastating to wildlife if it is not disposed of responsibly, as anyone who saw the BBC’s Blue Planet series can attest. Shrink wrap tunnels are also one of the worst offenders when it comes to energy consumption, operating at temperatures of 210 degrees and more for vast amounts of time.
Because it is vital to protect products during transit, simply banning secondary packaging or switching to solutions that only use one material or the other is not an option. So, what’s the solution?
Retailers and supermarkets need to adopt new secondary packaging solutions that use fewer materials and which can be recycled in a closed loop recycling system after use. This involves retailers and supermarkets recovering the packaging on-site and returning it to the packaging company that created it so it can be reused again and again and prevented from coming into contact with consumers or entering the natural environment.
New eco-innovations do precisely this and are now readily available. By replacing shrink wrap with ultra-thin stretch film, they instantly reduce plastic usage by as much as 70%, while new cardboard box designs can reduce corrugate usage by as much as 40%. They are also extremely energy efficient and can reduce energy usage by as much as 90% compared to traditional heat tunnels which are required when shrink wrapping items.
These platforms also eliminate the use of heat from the packaging process, making them suitable for use with a wider range of products than shrink wrap, such as fresh or frozen goods, or aerosols, which carry significant explosion risks and are dangerous to shrink wrap because of the heat required to shrink the film. And, by reducing energy and materials usage, these systems also deliver impressive cost savings.
Retailers and supermarkets need to learn from the mistakes that were made with plastic carrier bags, which were banned following a public outcry and replaced with paper alternatives. What wasn’t taken into account was that the carbon footprint of a paper bag is approximately five times larger than that of a plastic bag, so supermarkets simply swapped one problem for another. What they should have done is put a plastic bag recovery and recycling system in place to help foster a culture of reusing and recycling.
When we make decisions about materials, we have to consider all the environmental impacts. Until retailers and supermarkets develop a greater understanding of the carbon footprint of different materials and look at the ‘big picture’ and full lifecycle of packaging, opportunities to create significant carbon reduction savings will continue to be lost. And, although it’s tempting to focus on primary packaging because of the public outcry surrounding it, neglecting secondary packaging means ignoring the huge amount of waste it creates.
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