Jack Wallman: Sustainable packaging FAQs

31 May 2022, 07:11 AM
  • Jack Wallman, food innovation technologist at The Food Innovation Centre at the University of Nottingham, shares his labelling and packaging tips
Jack Wallman: Sustainable packaging FAQs

Why do we need packaging?
Packaging offers lots of essential functions such as protection, containment, preservation, information and branding. The food and drink sector tends to be a key user of packaging, for obvious reasons.

What’s the biggest trend in food and drink packaging?
Increasingly producers are looking at the sustainability of packaging. There is a concerted effort from both consumers and manufacturers to cut down on plastic. It’s estimated that five million tonnes of plastic is used in the UK every year – nearly half of which is packaging. Plastic packaging in the UK accounts for nearly 70% of our plastic waste.

Plastic waste doesn’t decompose and can last for centuries in landfill, 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 for packaging.

What options are there for increasing sustainability?
It’s not always straightforward. Often the packaging option with the lowest carbon footprint is plastic, which we know isn’t the most sustainable option, as it’s responsible for plastic pollution and goes into landfills. If you want to reduce the environmental impact of your packaging, you can reduce the packaging size, set up a packaging return scheme and use packaging materials that are recyclable or biodegradable.

What are the barriers to sustainable packaging?
The cost of adoption of the new generation, or greener, packaging is one of the big challenges for manufacturers, who might potentially need to invest significantly in new machinery and production facilities. Consumers generally want reduced or more sustainable packaging and the majority are willing to pay more for those options, according to numerous studies. Research also indicates that sustainable packaging is now a major factor when making a purchasing decision for many consumers. Another barrier is the trade-off between sustainability and other concerns including shelf life and aesthetics.

How are producers reducing their packaging?
In the past, larger packet sizes were attractive to consumers but now consumers care more about sustainability, so many producers tend to make the packaging smaller while keeping the contents the same quantity or size. One way to remove packaging entirely is refill. Consumers take their own tubs into a shop to fill from a hopper – this is growing in popularity. Prefill is another option where consumers take packaging back to the shop which then gets returned to the manufacturer for reuse.

How is the government tackling packaging waste?
The Plastic Packaging Tax came into force on 1 April 2022. The tax applies to plastic packaging manufactured in or imported into the UK containing less than 30% recycled content and aims to provide a financial incentive for manufacturers to use recycled plastic. Legislation known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) will be introduced for packaging from 2024. This means that packaging producers will pay the full cost of managing packaging once it becomes waste. The idea is that this will encourage producers to use less packaging and use more recyclable materials, reducing the amount of hard-to-recycle packaging placed on the market.

What’s the future of packaging?
Smart food packages are being developed with the potential to offer active solutions to keep food safer, high-quality and to reduce waste. Active components, such as moisture absorbers or antioxidants for example, are being incorporated into the packaging to maintain or extend product quality and shelf-life. Intelligent packaging to monitor the condition of the food during transport and storage is also being developed. Current cutting-edge packaging concepts include paper bottles and edible packaging made from products like seaweed.

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