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For years, plastic has played an important role in the food and drink sector by protecting goods from damage and ensuring a longer shelf life. But with the UK generating around 2.4 million tonnes per year of packaging waste, according to circular economy experts at WRAP, the industry is facing a crisis.
“Plastic might be a wonderful material for packaging food, but it comes with a legacy for the future,” explains Charles Baughan, managing director of family-owned Westaways Sausages. “I believe that food producers must change and help cut the use of plastic.”
Over recent years, many producers have done just that by taking steps to replace plastic packaging with zero-waste alternatives. Back in 2018, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced 11 companies representing more than six million tonnes of plastic packaging per year, including M&S, Coca-Cola and Unilever, that committed to working towards using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or earlier.
But small businesses are leading change on the ground. Charles’ Devon-based Westaways Sausages has made the radical move to package its sausages in entirely biodegradable materials, creating the first certified compostable packaging for a retail chilled meat product in the UK.
Charles took the leap into compostable packaging due to his appreciation for his local countryside and beaches and after realising just how much waste the industry produces. Every week, eight million plastic trays of sausages are sold in the UK, he says. “My company is based in the heart of the West Country, I love the countryside here and its beaches, and feel strongly that in addition to making sausages we need to show some leadership in this issue. Our region is there for us to enjoy and also to look after.”
The company worked with Italian packaging firm Fabbri Group to develop a new, compostable wrapping film – but it wasn’t easy. It took more than three years of testing and evaluating materials and designs. But the resulting packs, which are 100% certified as compostable both industrially and at home, were well worth the wait.
Now, Charles hopes his products will make waves in the industry. “We think the future is about collaboration and working together to reduce our impact on the environment… I look forward to working with others in the food and drink industry to make changes, and in doing so enable the public to change.”
Looking to nature’s recycling system
Another company making the switch to compostable packaging is drink maker Seedlip. The group teamed up with Magical Mushroom Company to use mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, in its new gifting range. The result is fully biodegradable, recyclable and home-compostable packaging.
“We are committed to celebrating and protecting the natural world and our mushroom-based gift set progresses both our support of sustainable packaging as well as championing nature’s ability to solve society’s challenges. Mushrooms are nature’s recycling system and we’re very proud to be working with them,” says Ben Branson, Seedlip Founder.
Paul Gilligan, co-founder of Magical Mushroom Company adds: “We’re really pleased to be working with Seedlip, who like us believe we can all get better at working in harmony with nature, and in doing so make a sustainable difference.” The gift set comes complete with a 100% recycled glass highball and a thyme seed paper neck tag, making it Seedlip’s most sustainable gift set to date. It will launch on October 1st.
But just how significant is making the switch to compostable packaging in reducing single-use plastic pollution? A report by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ found that the amount of plastic reaching the ocean can be reduced by about 80% by 2040 by implementing a system of interventions which includes substituting plastic with paper and compostable materials. It appears these small steps could have a very big impact.