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Sustainable packaging is at the heart of the food and drink sector’s response to the climate crisis, and it’s no surprise why: it’s an area where consumers are pushing for change. According to research by Trivium, nearly half of consumers won’t buy products in packaging that is harmful for the environment, and almost three-quarters will pay more for sustainable packaging.
“Consumers are much more educated on the impact of plastic, with many people opting to buy from brands that share their views on sustainability and are actively trying to make a difference,” said M Vahid Nagori, founder of Green Bell Packaging. “Packaging is a great place to start. Plastic-free packaging isn’t just important for our planet but it can also enhance a brand’s reputation and appeal.
“It doesn’t mean compromising on look or quality either. Sustainable packaging has come a long way in the last five years and the technology available now means that plant-based packaging is both durable and stylish while being practical in its application,” he adds.
Indeed, when it comes to sustainable packaging options today, there are more varieties than ever before on the market – from those pushing the bounds of possibility, like drinks brand Seedlip’s move into mushroom-based packaging or Frugalpac and Silent Pool Distillers’ first-of-its-kind paper gin bottle, to those that chip away at the plastics problem with more subtle innovations, like Butlers Farmhouse Cheeses recyclable polyethylene packaging.
At Green Bell Packaging, Vahid’s aim is to create plant-based and 100% plastic free options. The group’s latest innovation is a bag made entirely of materials derived from plants, but which has the look and feel of plastic. “The technology itself can be applied to almost anything, and we think it has the potential to change the food and drink sector,” he told Speciality Food.
Compostable and plant-based packaging are an area ripe for even further innovation – and it’s one that more and more food businesses are keen to support as they look to cut plastic out of their products entirely. Veg box company Riverford recently switched all of its packaging on fruit and veg to home compostable materials in a move that will save 21 tonnes of plastic every year.
Elsewhere, the food sector can use schemes like Prevented Ocean Plastic, a global recycling initiative which diverts plastics from entering oceans, to boost sustainability. Last year, Lidl launched a supermarket-first food packaging using ocean-bound plastic for its fish products, preventing more than 60 tonnes of plastic from entering the ocean each year – and the move won it the Retail Industry Awards’ Sustainable Initiative of the Year.
“The food sector is a major contributor to ocean plastic pollution and, very importantly, can play just as impactful a role in the prevention of ocean plastics,” Raffi Schieir, director of Bantam Materials, the supplier of Prevented Ocean Plastic, told Speciality Food.
“Nine of the Ocean Conservancy’s top 10 items retrieved from its annual international beach clean-ups are related to food and drink.” But, he continues, “the industry has the opportunity to activate a major clean-up of plastic in the natural environment by supporting recycled materials in packaging and products.”
Raffi believes that taking action with recycled plastics is a better option than waiting around for a “silver bullet solution that will solve all problems via an easy-to-use app”. He continued: “The truth of the matter is that the solution to the problem of sustainable packaging and ocean plastic pollution is out there right now, on our beaches and in the natural environment. These plastic resources can be collected and brought back into the recycling supply chain as long as industry, government and most importantly the consumer prioritises the importance of cleaning and using what we already have in this world, instead of producing new plastic using our limited petrochemical and oil resources.”
Covid-19 has had an impact on all aspects of life – including packaging. “In the last 12 months, as a result of Covid, we’ve seen an increase in the shipping of food and drink goods with many retailers, particularly independent retailers, looking at new ways to get their product to customers mainly through a direct mailing service,” explained Vahid. “This rise in products being shipped out has also led to an increase in cardboard and plastic packaging, which is something that we’re keen to tackle.”
Raffi agreed that the pandemic has put some of the gains the industry has made on sustainable packaging at risk. “During the crisis many manufacturing companies were able to reduce their commitments to sustainability and recycling while the world was more focussed on the pandemic. During this time, oil prices and new plastic prices dropped heavily and allowed for a period of profit taking in the packaging industry.”
However, he said a number of companies still maintained recycling commitments and doubled down on sustainability initiatives. “For many business owners, the pandemic has been an opportunity to review and reflect on their offerings, and sustainability is a big part of those discussions,” Vahid said. “Things are more competitive than ever and packaging can be a big USP.”
For fine food retailers, there is good reason to look for innovative solutions to packaging. The latest research from Greenpeace found that the multiples aren’t doing enough to reduce plastic. From 2018 to 2019, the plastic UK supermarkets produced only decreased by less than 2%. This means independents have a clear opportunity to lead the pack when it comes to plastic packaging reduction and innovative, sustainable solutions.
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