Why ditching plastic needs to be the ‘new normal’ in retail packaging

09 January 2024, 13:00 PM
  • From greenwashing to sustainability, packaging has certainly experienced challenges over the past few years, but getting it right is fundamental to every sale you make
Why ditching plastic needs to be the ‘new normal’ in retail packaging

Packaging. It’s the first thing consumers notice when they look at a retailer’s shelves. As Sajid Manzoor, founder of Imperial Food Packing, explains, “Packaging has to attract consumers and give them confidence in the quality of the product inside.”

Creating packaging that stimulates the consumer in a visual, auditory and tactile manner is a difficult feat, but it is what fine food is all about. It doesn’t just show the customer brand values, it helps a premium product jump off the shelf regardless of the price tag.

But the sector is facing a plethora of new challenges, bringing sustainability to the forefront of packaging considerations. Where does this leave retailers looking to provide their customers with top-quality products that also benefit the planet?

The sustainability question
The food industry is undeniably reliant on plastic. From wrapped fruit and veg to bottles of juice and sauces, and snack packets, there is plastic everywhere. As Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, explains, “Plastic is the default material for packaging because it is so cheap, the most subsidised material in the world, derived from the most subsidised industry in the world, Big Oil.”

It is estimated that five million tonnes of plastic is used in the UK every year – nearly half of which is packaging. In fact, plastic packaging in the UK accounts for nearly 70% of our plastic waste. Plastic doesn’t decompose and can last for centuries in landfills, or end up as litter which can pollute rivers, seas, oceans and the land. As a result, the food and drink sector is keen to develop more sustainable options.

In order to tackle a growing tidal wave of plastic, the UK Government introduced the Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT) on 1 April 2022, which is designed to give companies a financial incentive to clean up their act and meet worldwide environmental targets. According to Rob Janering, VAT partner at Crowe, “PPT is a new tax but it hasn’t been introduced with an aim to raise significant amounts of tax. Instead, it is a tax that is designed to change behaviours, to help with pushing a green agenda whereby fewer plastics are used to package items.

“We have been helping lots of clients across a variety of industries get to grips with PPT. It has wide-ranging impact because it is taxed at both the stage of final production in the UK and also when imported. This means that manufacturers who make the packaging need to register but also, anybody who imports it – and that, we have found, captures a large number of businesses including lots of retailers.”

The government has also passed legislation (Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)) which adds all of the environmental costs associated with a product throughout the product life cycle to the market price of that product. Therefore, the cost of collecting, reprocessing and recycling food packaging waste will be shifted from consumers onto producers themselves. This legislation was recently delayed until 2024 due to producers claiming they would not have enough time to prepare for the changes – much to the dismay of environmental groups such as A Plastic Planet and WRAP.

But despite the delay, EPR will still go ahead alongside PPT, and packaging manufacturers are now facing the challenge of innovating more sustainable packaging. As Sajid explains, “The journey to Net Zero means that packaging has to have as small an environmental footprint as possible. But it is a journey. Our customers are seeking better ways to pack food as they become affordable. More importantly, they need to have the security of a supply chain that complies with any organic or similar provenance requirements promised to the consumer. Our processes are very secure to guarantee that.”

Looking to the future
Innovation is ripe in the packaging industry, with inventive eco-friendly alternatives to plastic rising in popularity. As Sian explains, “Plant and fibre-based packaging is an exciting new technology. Packaging by Xampla uses innovative plant protein as an accessible plastic film alternative that is fully degradable with no waste infrastructure needed. Moulded fibre trays and punnets can replace billions of pieces of plastic packaging instantly.

“Algae, natural materials like rubber, cork, rice husk, new fibres like elephant grass and hemp, mycelium – all these natural materials will become part of our packaging future. And yes, they are available today. These material makers now need big brands and retailers to partner with them to accelerate adoption.
“But it is not just technological innovation that will make a difference, we really need to take a step back and reframe how we think about packaging. The ‘grab and go’ mindset must shift to acknowledging that nothing should be created to be used just once and thrown away.”

Aside from sustainable solutions, Sajid believes that brands need flexibility. “The future of retail is hybrid, with consumers buying in-store, wanting delivery from a local store or simply picking out a product on their phone. Light, robust, environmentally friendly and affordable solutions are what everyone is seeking.” As retail evolves, so will the packaging industry.

One brand that was founded to tackle the problem of environmentally unfriendly packaging is Blue Goose Coffee. “The business was born in 2017 having seen first-hand the horrific amount of waste being created by aluminium and plastic coffee capsules. We wanted to create a more sustainable alternative for British coffee pod lovers so our packaging has been plant-based and plastic-free from the start, with no aluminium either due to the environmental damage that mining Bauxite causes and the subsequent carbon cost in transforming it into aluminium”, said co-founder Lex Thornely.

“Highlighting our sustainability credentials from launch was, therefore, an absolute must, to achieve standout and a formidable USP. Little did we know David Attenborough’s Blue Planet was just around the corner, with the resulting awareness of the global plastic problem helping supercharge our efforts and totally justifying our commitment to plastic-free pod alternatives”, he added.

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