Addicted to plastic: why the industry is finding it so hard to get rid of it

Everyone wants to reduce packaging on food. But the reality is proving more difficult than first thought.

By David Burrows

Twelve months ago, experts from up and down the food supply chain got together for a couple of days of brainstorming in Northern Ireland. Hosted by Moy Park and the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen University Belfast, the topic was sustainable packaging.

Broken into teams they were given a Blue Peter-style task of developing and then pitching new designs (think card, tape scissors, plasticine and pipe-cleaners). The protein team had to dream up something that would appeal to ‘time-poor mum’ Maria who, on a budget with three kids, usually throws all the packaging away from Sunday’s roast chicken.

They created a cook-in-the-bag whole chicken, with packaging made from cassava (which is already being used for bags) that “magically melted away” in the oven, forming a “beautiful glaze”. No mess, no fuss, no waste – and the kids will eat it. Unfortunately, at this stage, it’s just a concept and won’t be coming to a supermarket shelf any time soon.

But why? What is it that makes it so hard to switch from traditional plastic – that requires fossil fuels, is hard-to-recycle and causes havoc in the natural environment – and introduce compostables, aluminium or cardboard? Why not follow Iceland’s lead: the retailer that has a target to remove all plastic packaging from its own label range by 2023?

It’s an enticing option. Never before has there been so much focus on packaging (perhaps more so, even, than the product it’s protecting). The pressure to do something has been ‘immense’, according to the British Retail Consortium. Much of the focus is on plastic – a material that has to date been integral to the poultry category but has been cast as the villain.

Campaigning amongst NGOs has increased six-fold since 2015 and shows “little sign of abating”, according to tracking firm Sigwatch. This has fuelled public plastiphobia: Ipsos/MORI research in 2018 found that 85% of consumers were either “very” or “fairly concerned” about plastic. A year later and YouGov discovered that 46% felt guilty about their plastic use, with 82% trying to reduce what they use.

But there can be unintended consequences from swapping materials. These can be reputational (for example, if the packaging is inconvenient or unfit for purpose), economic (people buy less products because they don’t like the packaging) and environmental.

Indeed, glass, card, metal and paper can all have higher carbon footprints than traditional plastic, but the science behind such life cycle analyses can leave many going round in circles.

“The past year has just really pissed me off no end with companies coming out and boasting about not using plastic, even when they’re in single use glass, and their carbon emissions are going to be off the scale,” said one supermarket representative as part of a new report published by Green Alliance, a think tank, in January.  

Meat products could certainly be a focus for cardboard manufacturers. Currently, many supermarkets are focusing on removing black plastic trays rather than plastic (see Red light for black plastic). However, in a report published in May last year, packaging firm DS Smith suggested that meat, fish and cheese represent “a significant opportunity for innovation and replacement” of plastic.

With approval ratings for cardboard (according to the Confederation of Paper Industries) at 55% among European consumers, compared to plastics at 7% and polystyrene at 1%, the switch is tempting. DS Smith told Poultry Business that there has been “increasing interest” in plastic packaging alternatives for poultry. Those manufacturing plastic maintain that the alternatives still aren’t all they are cracked up to be.

Switching can be very costly, so it pays to get it right. Iceland quickly found that its plastic-free target was not going to come cheap. It’s “damn hard work and it’s costing us a lot of money”, said the frozen food specialist’s managing director Richard Walker in an interview with PA last year. At the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum in September, David Moon from Wrap, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, also spoke of his fears for companies that are being “bounced” into action. He called for more time, especially in categories like meat, where complex laminated plastics are often used. “We are working with the meat sector to identify what they can do about this: are there alternative approaches to selecting the plastic or are there some good recycling routes for that plastic,” he explained. “I think the solutions will be found, but you need time.”

One solution is no packaging at all. Morrisons is encouraging customers to bring their own containers to the meat counter, whilst Waitrose has started unpacking various items (not yet meat) in a high profile campaign to promote reusables. It’s early days and it will take time for shoppers to adjust but long-term the trend is packaging-free rather than just plastic-free.

In the interim, plastic is here to stay and it’s a fair bet that many in the poultry sector are struggling with the flexible stuff often used to seal the trays or wrap “roast-in-the-bag” chickens (see Poultry processors’ plastic plans). Wrap, through the UK’s Plastics Pact, has set a target to increased recycled content of polyethylene films to 18% by the end of 2025 – it’s a big ask given the current rate is 0%. Part of the issue is achieving the standards required to meet EU standards for food contact materials. Another popular film is polypropylene – which is “the easiest plastic to recycle [but]cannot currently be recycled back to food grade”, according to Zero Waste Scotland. There is hope that Ceflex, a European-wide collaboration, will soon start delivering some results. Compostables, which consumers rank “most sustainable”, could also provide a solution, provided the barriers around supply, collection and treatment can be overcome.

Chicken-in-a-bag has also become a popular option: this lets shoppers see the product (29% of meat and poultry buyers like to see what they’re buying, say YouGov/AHDB), and offers convenience and peace of mind. It was Asda’s reported challenge to Faccenda to come up with a “truly innovative packaged product” that resulted in the technology to allow consumers to cook a whole chicken without handling the raw bird. Despite progress to reduce levels of Campylobacter, the concept of “touch-free” packaging remains attractive, especially to younger shoppers. According to Mintel, some 37% of 16-34 year-olds prefer not to handle raw meat when cooking – a finding that prompted Sainsbury’s to launch touch-free packaging for its chicken pieces in 2018. There was a backlash on Twitter given their continued use of plastic. Perhaps it’s time to look at that cassava wrap more seriously?

Red light for black plastic

Black trays are second only to sweet and crisp wrappers in terms of the food packaging that people are most worried about, according to Incpen/Wrap research. Retailers have begun to phase out these trays given that sorting technology struggles to identify them, though some are introducing “detectable” black trays, given that the colour has become synonymous with premium products.

Poultry processors’ plastic plans

In May, Moy Park launched its “Remove, Reduce, Recycle and Research” strategy. The company says it has hit a target to reduce overall use of packaging per kilo of chicken by 5% and is now chasing a similar cut by the end of this year. Plastic packaging will also be “widely recyclable” by 2022, but for any other packaging it’s 2025 (a sign of the pressure to act first on plastic). However, with the company not prepared to provide any further information and no sign of the strategy on the website, it’s hard to say how things are going.

2 Sisters also chose to publicise its new plastics strategy but not publish it. The company told Poultry Business that progress since the launch in April 2018 includes the removal of 481 tonnes of plastic from its own label poultry products; 183 tonnes of this was from trays which now also contain a minimum 30% recycled content. “This is only the beginning of our efforts,” says a spokesman, who also admitted that the company’s main challenge remain flexible film alternatives that are recyclable and can be produced with recycled materials.






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