With 74% of shoppers saying they have become more aware of the environmental impact of packaging in the last 12 months, it’s an issue that isn’t going away.
In particular, it’s a real area of concern for younger consumers, with 60% of under 35s claiming the environment will be of increasing importance to them in the next five to 10 years, found a report on sustainable packaging from Sun Branding Solutions.
Two-thirds of plastic packaging is currently unrecyclable, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), but even little changes can go a long way. For example, drinking from a reusable water container could mean 167 fewer single-use bottles in the system over the course of a year, while a coffee flask cuts out the need for 500 single-use cups over the same period.
Reducing waste could also affect the bottom line as 65% of people interviewed by Sun Branding Solutions said they’d be more inclined to make a purchase in that shop or cafe if a refillable bottle service was offered and 62% would choose that brand over a competitor.
Changing out single-use items is an easy fix at the consumer level, but what do manufacturers, retailers and foodservice need to consider? Food Spark picks out the key points from the report.
1. Going on a journey with the consumer
Change is unlikely to be instantaneous. If you’re adding cost as a result of acting more sustainably, you need to be in for the long haul as figures from Kantar Worldpanel show that only 28% of UK consumers would be willing to pay more for a product in environmentally friendly packaging.
2. Engaging with the end process
It’s a postcode lottery with local council kerbside collections; there’s no commonality across England, never mind the UK. This makes it extremely difficult for consumers to know what they can recycle and impossible for brands and retailers to inform them on pack in a simple and easy way.
Research by the LGA found that of the 525,000 tonnes of plastic pots, tubs and trays used by UK households every year, only 169,145 tonnes is able to be recycled.
LGA spokesperson Councillor Judith Blake said that affecting change isn’t just in the hands of consumers or councils – there needs to be a commitment to sustainability further up the chain that makes local authority and individual behaviours relevant and impactful.
“We need an industry-wide, collaborative approach where together we can reduce the amount of material having an impact on the environment,” she noted. “But if industry won’t help us get there, then the Government should step in to help councils ensure we can preserve our environment for generations to come.”
3. Biodegradable might not be the answer
Many brands are responding to the packaging issue by moving to compostable or biodegradable options. While that might mean short-term positive PR, these aren’t always the best solutions, as a number of articles have remarked in recent months.
Many compostable packs can only be processed in industrial plants, said Gillian Garside-Wight, Packaging Technology Director at Sun Branding Solutions, and both compostable and biodegradable packs can still end up in the ocean if they aren’t disposed of correctly.
“So, while it might seem like the right thing to move to compostable or biodegradable plastic for your packaging, if you don’t look at the change through a consumer lens, you’re just moving the issue further down the line. If people don’t understand how to properly dispose of your apparently eco-friendly packaging, then you’ve simply moved responsibility from your brand to the consumer, and that isn’t a long-term solution,” she commented.
Food Spark heard at the Bread & Jam conference that some supermarkets are moving completely away from compostable packaging behinds the scenes.
4. Remember plastic’s purpose
When Morrisons announced it would be removing plastic wrapping from its cucumber, which would reduce shelf life by two days, critics were concerned about the impact on food waste. But the supermarket said it was what consumers wanted.
“Consumer education is key to reducing unnecessary packaging and minimising food waste,” said Garside-Wight. “For example, some brands have quoted their packaging’s carbon impact on pack, but the average shopper has no frame of reference, so it’s meaningless. Also, consumers need to be made aware of some of the differences in pack formats that extend life. Vacuum-sealing steak significantly adds to the shelf life, but once the pack is open and oxygen gets to the meat, it changes colour, which can lead to some consumers thinking there’s something wrong with the meat and throwing it away.”
She added that plastic is not the enemy and shoppers need to be made aware of the consequences of ditching it altogether.
“To put the impact of food waste versus plastic use into perspective, 10 times more resources go into making the product than the packaging. In one person’s average weekly food consumption, 51% of the energy expended is through the supply chain, with only 10% expended on primary and secondary packaging, so it’s vital to avoid knee-jerk reactions around packaging at the risk of impacting the life of the product.”
5. A new education system
Plastic design and engineering company RPC Design has proposed a new grading system – similar to the EPC ratings you’ll see on electrical appliances to show the sustainable credentials of the packs it creates. The grading system – which goes from A to F – takes into account the use of recycled materials, plus the overall recyclability of the pack.
“Our grading system enables customers to see very easily how we have considered all the options in making their product more circular, particularly in terms of its suitability for recycling,” said RPC design manager Brian Lodge.
Another option could borrow from the on-pack food traffic light system, a system that food shoppers are already familiar with and could be introduced to non-food categories.