If plastic packaging was invented today it would be regarded as one of the greatest technological innovations to rank alongside the wheel and the printed book and would, crucially, be seen as a key driver in the 21st Century’s green economy.
The packaging industry in Europe is among the most innovative industries when it comes to creating sustainable environmental solutions. So why is it so poor at telling consumers about its successes in sustainable packaging?
To answer that question we need to consider the entire life cycle of a packaging system – from the production or mining of raw materials through to disposal or recycling and how the packaging system interacts with the food it contains, and ultimately how this interacts with the wider environmental system.
Over the past ten years the amount of packaging waste going to final disposal has fallen by 57 percent¹. Nevertheless, in spite of the evidence, lobbyists, non-governmental organizations and other pressure groups continue to insist that Europe is struggling under a mountain of packaging waste.
The reality is that packaging waste accounts for only about three per cent of total waste from households and commercial sources in Europe² and in the UK the second phase of the Courtauld Commitment agreement between retailers, brands and manufacturers resulted in a 10.7% reduction in grocery packaging weight and a 10% reduction in its carbon impact³.
This was achieved through clever innovation and optimisation of packaging products including lightweighting, using recycled content, designing packaging with recyclability in mind and changing product formats to better accommodate consumer needs for example refillable and resealable packs.
When combined with reductions in food and drink waste at the household level and throughout the supply chain, the cost and efficiency benefits are huge with the value of waste prevented being around £3.1bn³.
Meanwhile, the average European consumes 27Kg of oil in the form of packaging per year; by comparison, the average driver uses 1,620Kg of oil as diesel or petrol. I don’t need to ask which one gets the most negative attention. We are even at the point where petrol is being branded as ‘ultra green’.
The European packaging sector has already won the economic and environmental argument for packaging but in spite of all the sterling work by the industry trade bodies we have not been very good at communicating the sustainable qualities of packaging to consumers and to some extent retailers. It is only very recently that the issue of food waste has been brought to the attention of the general public on mainstream news programmes and even then, little was said about the role that packaging can play in minimising waste.
According to a survey by INCPEN in September 2011, only 26 per cent of people agreed that food waste is a bigger environmental problem than packaging waste, whereas twice as many (52 per cent) disagreed.
Political leaders need to explain to consumers that wasting food is a very serious environmental problem and far bigger than throwing away the few grams of recyclable packaging that ensures the food remains fresh and safe.
Try to imagine a world without packaging; the manufacture, transport, distribution and consumption of virtually every consumer good would be impossible. For food and drink products, long shelf life is a requirement to create low wastage rates between the packer filler and consumer. In the context of overall sustainability it is more and more evident that contrary to popular misconception, packaging should be regarded as part of the solution, not part of the problem, and a net contributor to achieving sustainable resource management and waste reduction.
Today, packaging companies are under ever increasing pressure to develop products which are lighter, more recyclable and which adapt to demographic and lifestyle changes, for example split packs (“eat me / keep me” designs as they have become known) which suit the increasing number of one and two person households as well as the older generation who like smaller portions. They have to work smarter than ever before to deliver solutions which are fit for purpose and which, simultaneously, tick all the right boxes for the planet.
Packaging producers are investing significant amounts to further improve packaging sustainability in the future and to develop products which meet the requirements for innovative, groundbreaking and environmentally sound designs. Thanks to new innovations in packaging, supermarket shelves are a lot lighter now - and so are landfills.
At LINPAC Packaging, we understand the need to offer a range of sophisticated solutions to the food industry. We use the minimum amount of material needed for packaging to be fit for purpose and effectively protect, preserve and present food. Our innovations team is constantly looking for ways to provide robust trays which have a reduced weight and yet offer the same pack integrity and shelf life as heavier trays. As process technologies have improved at LINPAC, it has been possible to significantly reduce the weight of some of our rigid trays whilst retaining high levels of performance and quality.
Our Freshware range for the chilled retail convenience and ready prepared market has been lightweighted in line with our LIFE (LIghtweighting For Excellence) Engineering & Design Programme and comprises packaging for prepared fruit and salads, dips, sandwich fillers, fresh pasta, pizza, prepared vegetables (e.g. stir-fry), chilled bakery, cooked meats and prepared fish.
The range includes recyclable, portion-sized, packs to suit single or smaller servings for eating on the go and helping consumers reduce food waste at home. The containers are manufactured from a minimum of 90% rPET and the recycled material used in their manufacture goes through our in-house super cleaning system to ensure we are creating food safe, hygienic packs, exceeding food safety regulations.
Sealant technology developed for another of our products, Rfresh® Elite - a tray for fresh meat and poultry - will also be incorporated into some Freshware products. This patented tray uses unique sealant technology on the tray flange to create a secure seal with the lidding film, thus removing the industry standard laminated PE base film and making the trays 100% recyclable at the end of their service life.
The chilled foods sector lends itself well to creativity and innovation in pack design and whilst the primary function of packaging is to protect and preserve food, high visual shelf impact and consumer engagement through creative design is important to retailers and food manufacturers who want to capture the attention of consumers and entice them to buy.
Ultimately, every link in the supply chain is demanding more efficient packaging, both in terms of weight and environmental impact. The challenge for packaging manufacturers is to develop products which have a low carbon footprint at every stage of their lifecycle whilst at the same time offering improved protective qualities, increased shelf life and enhanced presentation.
Plastic packaging has taken such a large share of the packaging market precisely because it is the most cost effective solution to deliver performance. Cost effective means resource efficient and to be resource efficient means to be environmentally efficient too.
By Alan Davey, Director of Innovation.
This article appeared in Retail Times.
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