Food packaging, unpacked

We look at what's available and help businesses make the right choices from the plethora of environmentally options available

Continents covered in waste

It’s fair to say that environmental consciousness is at an all-time high, fuelled by stark insights such as Sir David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet television series about the plight of the world’s oceans. The realisation of the damage being done to the world’s oceans and wildlife through the sheer amount of plastic and other waste materials being discarded worldwide brought most up short – and catastrophic wild fires in Australia over the British winter underlined the climate catastrophe we face, if, indeed, it wasn’t already clear enough.

The COVID-19 pandemic which has engulfed the globe since March has proved a double-edged sword. It has undoubtedly taken attention away from the urgent need to save our environment, and the vast amounts of additional waste being created by much-needed PPE (personal protective equipment) are not good news either. Yet, on the other hand, with less travel taking place and therefore less pollution being generated, there is evidence of wildlife reclaiming areas where it hasn’t been seen for decades, coupled with a lifting of the toxic gases in our atmosphere that have become a sad fact of modern life.

Against this backdrop, businesses face an even greater dilemma than they did in the world BC – or ‘Before COVID-19’. They are fighting for their own survival, particularly those in the HORECA (hotels, restaurants and catering) sector, yet the majority still want to do the right thing when it comes to the materials they use, day-to-day.

Food and hospitality businesses, in particular, have faced a challenging time. Forced to close in March, many have had to rethink their entire operating models and have begun serving their products as takeaways in order to keep some revenue coming in. Happily, many have found this such a profitable and cost-effective string to their bows, they’ll continue offering that either instead of – or in addition to – in-house service, amidst the so-called ‘new normal’. However, with that comes the potential for increased waste, as they serve their food and drinks in disposable containers rather than via reusable crockery and cutlery.

Because this sector’s experience of the pandemic – and its resulting evolution – has been so stark, in this blog our Managing Director, Mark Elliott, takes a look at the options such food and hospitality businesses, in particular, have for packaging their products in a way which balances environmental responsibility and business priorities. He also debunks some popular myths about what materials are truly virtuous, and which aren’t, with some surprising revelations.

What packaging choices do food businesses have?

There’s no doubt that a range of material options have arisen in recent years, as product innovators worldwide battle to find more environmentally-friendly options for the fight against climate change. We can now choose from biodegradable, recyclable, compostable and plant-based alternatives to the traditional products which have found their way into landfill sites over the decades. However, with such an array comes the potential for confusion, too. And not only that, but not all of those are necessarily as environmentally-kind as they seem.

“It’s easy, as a member of the public or a business, to think that buying items labelled ‘compostable’ is doing the right thing for the environment,” said Mark. “However, in reality, such items – including certain cardboard containers and cups – need a certain mix of conditions to break down, a process which can, in itself, take many years and make them no less damaging, when slung in the bottom of a hedgerow, than a piece of polystyrene.

“And even polystyrene – while is due to be banned by law in 2021 – is not necessarily as terrible as people might assume.”

At Elliott’s, we aim to give our customers all the facts they need to make the right choices, based on everything from cost to customer expectations and, ultimately, what’s best for the world we live in.

“Overall, we believe that anything made from recycled and recyclable materials is the best option, but even this is no good if someone is just going to throw the item away into landfill or discard it in the streets and countryside around us, so we encourage the businesses we deal with to choose right, first and foremost, and then encourage their staff and customers to dispose of things responsibly,” added Mark.

“Most customers already have an idea of what they want when they contact us, so our role is to present them with all their options, and all the true facts, so that they can make their own judgement about what’s right for their business.”

Mark’s run-down of the different packaging options available and their pros and cons

Biodegradable

The Oxford dictionary definition of biodegradable is ‘(of a substance or object) capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms and thereby avoiding pollution’. Biodegradable packaging is made from naturally-occurring tree or plant-based substances, which can rot down over time. However, it should again be borne in mind that this doesn’t necessarily mean this process will take place quickly. In fact, it can take decades for a biodegradable item to fully decompose – though, in its favour, it won’t contain any substances that will do lasting damage to the environment as it does so.

Compostable

Sounds great, doesn’t it – overtones of The Good Life, even? These days, there are some fantastic options on the market, including cartons and cups which look just like, and do the same job as, plastic, but are made from all plant-based materials, which is fantastic. However, it’s important to be aware that such waste items don’t just break down naturally – they need processing in a specific way in order to do so, and that’s the main difference between something that is biodegradable and an item which is compostable. Unfortunately, there are, as yet, so few industrial sites that can process such waste items that 90 per cent of them potentially end up in landfill anyway.

Recyclable

In our opinion, this is the option which best guarantees the results you want to happen. If you choose glasses, plastics, cards or papers that are clearly labelled as recyclable, you know that they will go back into circulation to be re-used again and again, and NOT into landfill. The technology used to recycle such items – though evolving all the time – is tried and tested and capable of recycling them on a mass scale. In fact, figures released by Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) in February, 2019, showed that the recycling rate for UK households increased to 45.7 per cent in 2017, against the target of 50 per cent by 2020. Meanwhile, 70 per cent of packaging waste was either recovered or recycled, ahead of the European Union target of 60 per cent. Defra is aiming to raise these figures further through its Resources & Waste Strategy, supported by manufacturers that are coming up with clever new packaging solutions all the time.

Non-recyclable
At the same time, petroleum and oil-based products like polystyrene, which are not recycled in the UK, are being phased out, although their excellent properties for preserving and protecting all manner of items have stood the test of time for many years. And there are grey areas here, too, as, ironically, polystyrene’s carbon footprint is lower than many other, natural materials like cardboard or plant matter, because it is lighter to transport.

Not a black and white choice

We’re acutely aware that, as well as weighing up the environmental credentials, cost is another factor that businesses cannot ignore – particularly in challenging times like the present. “Unfortunately, environmentally-friendly options do tend to cost more,” added Mark.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean ruling them out altogether, because sometimes that extra premium is worth paying for the reputational boost and respect it can earn you among your customers. However, at the same time, if you’re a restaurant running a new takeaway arm, which has already lost thousands by being closed due to COVID, that could be just too big a price to pay.”

And when that’s the case, and businesses have to opt for choices that can’t be recycled or are made of non-biodegradable materials, the news isn’t necessarily all bad. “Polystyrene packaging is going to be made illegal from 2021 (a phasing-out deadline that has been delayed by some months due to COVID-19), despite it still being a very popular choice for its protective, cost-effective and heat and cold-retaining qualities,” said Mark. “Not only that, but, ironically, polystyrene has positive qualities in terms of carbon footprint, because it is lighter than card or paper, and can be shipped cheaper, and using less fuel, than other types of packaging.

“There are natural alternatives emerging all the time – made of everything from plants to sheep’s wool, which have the same thermal properties capable of keeping items hot or cold. However, at the moment, they can cost approximately three times as much as polystyrene. No doubt, though, new alternatives will emerge as industry is fighting to innovate in line with the Government’s ambitious green agenda. Hopefully, that will also result in increased choice and reduced costs, as more and more alternative options become available and their increasing popularity results in economies of scale through mass production.

“Ultimately, if such man-made products are your only option for now, they won’t necessarily end up in landfill. Waste processing techniques are evolving all the time and things like incineration – although also controversial, admittedly – can help ensure environmental damage is minimised.”

Nor are reusable items necessarily the option they were pre-COVID. “A lot of outlets, like coffee shops, were trying to help the environment by encouraging customers to invest in multi-use cups and bring them in for refilling. Now, unfortunately, while some places have begun offering that service again, we don’t think it’s really advisable, given the bigger public health priority of limiting the spread of COVID-19,” added Mark.

Doing things right is key, whatever your choice

Businesses can help matters by ensuring that staff and customers dispose of all kinds of items appropriately.

“Ultimately, a compostable cup that might take decades to decompose is potentially just as damaging to the world around us, when chucked into the bottom of a hedgerow, as a polystyrene box,” concluded Mark.

“A lot of this comes down to businesses providing their customers and staff with the tools to dispose of boxes, trays, bags, cups and cartons carefully, through signage reminding them what to do – and by providing the right waste bins that make it easy to do.

“In 10 years’ time, hopefully the options available to us all will have increased exponentially as the environmental agenda accelerates and the Government works harder to make everyone aware of their individual responsibilities. We’d like to see a lot more positive effort around that awareness-raising, so that people ultimately understand what materials they should be using and what they should be doing to ensure they discard of them responsibly.”

In the meantime, Elliott’s are here to help you navigate a path through the myriad of packaging options and, ultimately, choose the one that best suits the unique needs of your business. Our latest product brochure contains a selection of the packaging choices available from our recommended suppliers.

For a bespoke recommendation that suits your business, contact us via 01482 327580 or enquiries at elliotthygiene.co.uk

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