With everything going on in the world of politics, from Brexit to Russian spies, it’s perhaps surprising how rapidly the topic of plastic packaging has jumped up the agenda in recent months.
Blue Planet II was a rare event in TV last autumn, a series it really felt like most of the population was watching together. Scenes of turtles navigating their way through water filled with discarded polythene and scraps of packaging made a real impact, alongside the authoritative delivery of Sir David Attenborough warning of the impending overload of manmade pollution in our seas.
While that might have kickstarted the national conversation about plastic packaging, the appointment of Michael Gove to Defra as secretary of state has also sent a jolt of electricity through the environmental agenda.
Once considered a backwater for the unambitious or the underperforming, Defra has been energised by Gove, widely considered a Cabinet powerhouse with no plans to fade into the background.
Announcement has followed announcement from Defra in recent months. Perhaps most significant was the government’s 25-year environmental plan.
Included in this wide-ranging document is a section focussed on minimising waste. It sets out how the Government plans to ‘minimise waste, reuse materials as much as we can and manage materials at the end of their life to minimise the impact on the environment’.
In it, it says the Government will do this by taking the following steps:
- working towards our ambition of zero avoidable waste by 2050
- working to a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042
- meeting all existing waste targets – including those on landfill, reuse and recycling – and developing ambitious new future targets and milestones
- seeking to eliminate waste crime and illegal waste sites over the lifetime of this Plan, prioritising those of highest risk. Delivering a substantial reduction in litter and littering behaviour.
- significantly reducing and where possible preventing all kinds of marine plastic pollution – in particular material that came originally from land
Almost immediately, major food manufacturers and retailers began making their own announcements about how they would reduce or even eliminate plastic waste from their supply chains, eagerly trying to occupy the space where the spotlight was shining.
Iceland was one of the first. The frozen food retailer’s managing director Richard Walker wrote a personal blog, detailing the decision to remove all plastic packaging from its own label products by 2023, a move far outstripping the commitments made by any other big retailer.
“I’m a keen surfer so I may be more aware than most of all the plastic detritus in the sea – but we’ve pretty much all watched or at least heard about Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series and seen the sort of damage plastic waste is doing to the oceans,” he wrote in January. “Insidiously, it is also breaking down into small particles that are being consumed by marine life and re-entering the human food chain through fish and seafood. The consequences could ultimately be catastrophic for humanity as a whole, and as the father of young children I want to do everything I can to protect their future.
“Just consider the facts. Every bit of plastic ever produced still exists, unless it has been incinerated, and more of it has been produced in the twenty-first century so far than in the whole of the last one. We’re dumping a truckload of it into the sea every minute, and it is going to stay there for hundreds of years. It’s crazy, and it has got to stop.”
Walker said Iceland’s consumer research showed 80% of its shoppers said they would support a supermarket that decided to go plastic-free.
“It’s not going to be easy, but it can be done. We can move relatively quickly in some areas, and two new meal ranges we are launching next month will be in paper-based trays rather than the ubiquitous black plastic ones that almost no one can recycle,” he said. “In other areas there are greater technical challenges, but new technologies and materials are developing fast and our stand will encourage them to come on stream even quicker. In some cases, we can also go back to materials and methods that worked well before plastic came along – for example using cellulose, which is made from wood, and returnable glass bottles.”
Other retailers have followed suit, albeit in less dramatic ways. Aldi announced in February it would commit to using only recyclable, reusable or compostable plastic packaging on its own brand products by 2022, and chief executive Matthew Barnes pledged his ‘support in principle’ to a national deposit scheme for returnable plastic bottles.
Likewise, Lidl said it was aiming to use 50% recycled materials within its own-brand packaging by 2025 and is also phasing out 5p reusable bags from its stores.
Other commitments Lidl is making include reducing 20% less plastic packaging and 100% of its own-brand packaging will be ‘widely recyclable, reusable, refillable or renewable’ by 2025.
And among food manufacturers there have also been some bold commitments. Cranswick said that by 2025 it will:
- Reduce the weight of its plastic packaging from farm to fork by 50%.
- Re-use all of its internal materials in a closed loop system across its business
- Recycle all the packaging it uses by ensuring it is not only 100% recyclable, but easily recyclable supporting circular waste solutions.
The firm also said it would lobby the Government to support a cohesive national recycling infrastructure.
Internationally there has also been movement. In January, the first-ever Europe-wide strategy on plastics was published. Under the new plans, all plastic packaging on the EU market will be recyclable by 2030, the consumption of single-use plastics will be reduced and the intentional use of microplastics will be restricted.
“There is a strong business case for transforming the way products are designed, produced, used, and recycled in the EU and by taking the lead in this transition, we will create new investment opportunities and jobs,” said EU First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development.
“If we don’t change the way we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050. We must stop plastics getting into our water, our food, and even our bodies. The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also announced it will carry out research into the effect of pieces of micro-plastic ending up in drinking water, after tests on bottles of the leading brands of mineral water found traces of plastics, some as thin as a hair, in the majority of the samples tested.
There have been calls for caution as the panic over plastic mounts. As one expert said in last month’s Poultry Business feature on this same topic, “If packaging were invented today, it would be regarded as one of the greatest green technologies due to its protective and preserving qualities.”
Kenton Robbins MD at PFF Packaging, one of the UK’s largest independent food packaging manufacturers, added: “Plastic beats most materials hands down on carbon emissions] Many of the alternatives on offer are simply not suitable for the packaging of meat and poultry and few consumers understand the journey the industry has gone on to develop modern, fit for purpose and efficient plastic packaging designs.”
Some alternatives are making their way through to supermarkets shelves, with Dalehead Foods launching a new range of turkey for Waitrose in card packaging similar to sandwich boxes.
And as momentum builds, it seems innovation will have to keep pace with demand from Government, health organisations, and ultimately consumers. If ordinary punters vote with their wallets and support manufacturers and retailers offering plastic-free foods, the tide really will be changing for how our food industry does business.