Plastic progress: what has the industry achieved since the issue blew up?

Unrecyclable materials such as black plastics and polystyrene are disappearing from UK supermarket shelves, according to a Wrap report, with some interesting initiatives also going on trial this year.

22 May 2019
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image credit: Getty Images

When the Blue Planet effect reverberated around the UK, businesses scrambled to respond to consumer fury about the environmental impact caused by plastic pollution. As the industry woke up, Wrap launched the UK Plastics Pact to reduce the amount of the material being produced across the supply chain. Forty-two companies signed up at launch, but that number has risen to 76 today.

The pact set four targets to be reached by 2025. These included 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable, 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled or composted, 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging and eliminating problematic or unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative delivery models.

Wrap, however, is challenging members not to waste time. They have called for the removal of polystyrene and PVC from food packaging by the end of the year, particularly as PVC is non-recyclable and contaminates plastic-recycling facilities. Members are being asked to adopt ‘detectable black’ pigments.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, what’s been the progress of supermarkets, manufacturers and suppliers in the first year and what more could be done?

Supermarkets

  • Getting in before government bans, M&S has replaced plastic cutlery with alternatives made from FSC-certified wood and swapped plastic straws for paper versions, while Waitrose has committed to stop selling plastic cutlery by the end of this year. Most retailers have also removed plastic straws from sale and in cafes – Morrisons estimates that this initiative removes approximately 30 tonnes of plastic and 65m straws per year.
  • Tesco, Asda and Aldi combined have removed almost 700 tonnes of non-recyclable polystyrene pizza bases by introducing a cardboard alternative.
  • M&S phased out 1,700 tonnes of black plastic packaging. Lidl has removed the material from primary fruit and vegetable packaging, and Ocado has removed it from 83 product lines (90% of Ocado own-brand lines).
  • Morrisons is going in hard. It has moved polystyrene egg boxes into paper pulp – saving 294 tonnes of unrecyclable plastic – and has just announced plastic-free fruit and veg areas in 60 stores. It has trialled reverse vending machine, which accept PET bottles and cans, and over the last six months more than 1m containers have been collected for recycling, representing 1.2 tonnes of plastic.
  • Aldi has been tackling a range of categories. The pasta pots in its food-to-go range are now made of 95% recycled content and its 2L juice drinks have been redesigned to reducevirgin plastic usage by 85 tonnes each year. It has also cut more than 1,050 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic annually by moving its Ashfield Farm Range of sliced cooked meats to recyclable packaging, as well as reducing 630 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic in its fresh meats and 250 tonnes in produce by swapping out black trays with clear ones.
  • Loose veg seems to be a popular initiative among the supermarkets. For example, Aldi is trialling five veg lines– savoy cabbage, red cabbage, white cabbage, pointed cabbage and cauliflowers – without plastic packaging in Scotland.The trial is estimated to have saved more than half a tonne of plastic; if rolled out across the UK, the initiativecould eliminate more than 110 tonnes of plastic wrapping a year.
  • Many supermarkets are also offering consumers in-store recycling facilities. In Asda’s Beeston site, there is an ongoing trial to replace plastic takeaway containers and cutlery with more organic options, including introducing coffee cup and food waste recycling bins which could be rolled out across the estate by the end 2019.M&S is also planning a nationwide roll-out of a hard-to-recycle plastic retrieval scheme by the end of the year.
  • Sainsbury’s is taking the idea a step further with plans to trial a scheme to assess the appetite for customers to ‘precycle.’ This would provide an area for customers to remove unwanted primary and secondary packaging in store and leave it with the retailer for recycling.
  • Tesco has taken 45 packaged foods out of stores in Watford and Swindon and part of a trial. The organic bagged prepared salads are now made from PE film,which will be turned into 10p Bags for Life that are made from 94% recycled plastic. The supermarket is also are trialling in-store recycling machines for plastic bottles in selected stores that pay 10p for every bottle returned.
  • Waitrose will pilot refillables in shops and plan to eliminate plastic-laminated board or paper for products like sandwiches by 2021, with complex laminates like crisp packets to follow by 2023. It will also introduce a reusable fruit and veg bag for customers to buy.

 

Manufacturers

  • PepsiCo, via Walkers Crisps, launched the UK’s first nationwide crisp packet recycling scheme in partnership with TerraCycle. This has already collected 2.4m packets.
  • Kraft Heinz Europe is working to make the recyclable Heinz Tomato Ketchup PET plastic bottle fully circular by 2022, using recycled material that can be made back into food-grade packaging.
  • Nestle’s Smarties will start moving towards plastic-free containers this year. The food giant has identified the 10 most challenging packaging formats in its portfolio, with roadmaps to tackle the issues.

 

Suppliers / Brands

  • ABP Food Group, which provides beef, lamb and sausage products, has ensured its plastic preformed trays are currently made with 97% recycled content, consisting of regrind and bottle flake.
  • All manufacturing sites at Quorn will be single-use plastic free by the end of 2019, while the removal of all but one black plastic was achieved last year (a reduction of 300 tonnes of plastic). The meat-free manufacturer also designed peel and reseal deli packaging to remove black plastic and PVC – a double win as it was easier to use for consumers and helped to reduce food waste.
  • Arla has a new packaging solution being developed to allow drinking from the lid so the straw can be removed. It is testing and developing spoon alternatives, including wood-based versions, while also exploring bore-seal milk bottles to allow removal of the lift and peel, which is multi layer and non-recyclable.
  • Innocent has achieved a minimum of 30% recycled content in its bottles, with the smoothie bottles now containing 50%. It is also aiming for a 100% renewable smoothie bottle by 2022, comprised of 70% recycled plastic and 30% robust bioplastic from waste organic sources.
  • Danone has reported that all Evian 75cl, 1L and 1.5L bottles produced for the UK market now contain 50% recycled content.

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