Plastic not so fantastic

Excessive packaging has given itself a bad name among the public and Government. How can businesses grab this opportunity and deliver a packaging sea-change?

By Clare Dowdy

Plastic Packaging

From packaging manufacturers to waste management firms, and from retailers to Government, everyone is scrabbling to appear to be doing something about plastic. Because that most precious of groups, consumers, have woken up to the evils of excess packaging. 

Plenty of businesses have made commitments and pledges, and a few have already made changes. The doers include Dutch supermarket Ekoplaza, which has a plastic-free aisle with goods packaged in biodegradable materials. And Iceland now sells its Hungry Heroes kids’ meals on paper trays, reducing the product’s plastic by 85 per cent. Iceland was ahead of the game, announcing its plans in January to design out plastics from its own-brand packaging before the Government voiced its concern.

“We’re not trying to say that plastic is a really bad thing, but it’s polluting the sea and getting into the food chain, and we wanted to do something about it,” said Iceland’s head of sustainability Richard Parker at the Recycling Association’s Quality First conference this spring. Parker has mapped out the steps for every product range to be plastic-free by 2023. “It’s a massive job to do this across 1,400 product lines,” he adds.

Plastic is only part of the sustainability problem, but it is a highly conspicuous part – as Blue Planet II’s coverage of a dead whale calf proved. In the last 20 years, the production of plastic has increased 20-fold. Britain generates about 3.7m tonnes of plastic waste annually, and about a third gets dumped in the environment rather than being recycled, put in landfill or incinerated. The UK is one of the EU’s largest waste exporters, in part because it lacks recycling capacity at home. But with China’s ban on some “foreign garbage”, the pressure is on.

The heroes of this packaging journey will be those who somehow join up all the complex dots.

As well as the retailers making the right noises, there are beacons of hope in the packaging world. Birmingham packaging manufacturer Biopac has seen a run on its compostable paper straws. And through Müller’s delivery business Milkandmore, 1,100 delivery staff deliver more than 100m pints of milk in glass bottles a year.

But many people are worried that these piecemeal changes will be a drop in the ocean. The heroes of this packaging journey will be those who somehow join up all the complex dots.

“The Government should be legislating to bring everyone into the room,” says Parker at Iceland, pointing out that retailers “all use the same suppliers and packers”. That could lead to tricky and perhaps unpopular policy changes to fix the whole plastics recycling system.

If plastic were valuable on land, then people would stop chucking it in the sea. Because the real crisis is being played out in developing countries. Their poor waste management systems mean they are responsible for 80 per cent of the oceans’ plastic.

Back in the UK, the spotlight is yet to fall on one of the biggest perpetrators: fast-food outlets. Even customers who are eating in at Pret A Manger, McDonald’s and plenty of other cafés are fed using disposable, single-use crockery and cutlery. However, a strong Government ruling to introduce china and to hire someone to do the washing-up would no doubt get these companies’ hackles up.

Coupled with a cautious Government is a public seemingly wedded to convenience. Retailers and manufacturers like to wring their hands about consumers’ slowness or lack of appetite to change their ways. But perhaps there are now signs of a shift in behaviour. For example, in the first quarter of 2018, 12,000 new customers signed up to Milkandmore.

This new goodwill around sustainable solutions could lead to widespread, meaningful improvements. Simon Ellin, CEO of the Recycling Association, thinks so: “Retailers and producers have been caught out and I do smell change.”

And Parker for one is happy to share the expertise he’s building up at Iceland. “Hopefully we’ll develop some solutions that other people can follow.”

Take-out: Necessity is the mother of all invention. Eco-driven disruption is starting to show results.


Three pioneers offer some clever solutions

Coffee cup confidential

James Cropper

Prepare to be astonished: we use an estimated 2.5bn disposable cups in the UK each year, according to research by Cardiff University for coffee roaster Bewley’s. Because the waterproof plastic lining is so difficult to separate from the card, they are very tricky to recycle. Meaning huge numbers end up in landfill.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Tucked away in the James Cropper paper mill in the Lake District is an ingenious piece of kit that recycles cups into top-quality paper stock.

The waste disposal company Veolia collects cups from Starbucks, Costa and McDonald’s, then cleans, bales and delivers them to the mill. There, the polyethylene lining and paper are separated in a vast vat, in a secret process called CupCycling™ by James Cropper. That’s all we know, as details are under wraps.

Once separated, the paper fibre, which constitutes 90 per cent of the cup, is rescued and turned into fine papers. And the lining, which makes up the remaining 10 per cent, ends up in plastic cable coverings. That means it’s a zero-waste process.

These used cups are being transformed into a new deluxe range of paper for specialist paper merchant GF Smith. Each sheet of 380gsm Extract paper contains five used coffee cups.

CupCycling™ by James Cropper is being hailed as the world’s first recycling process dedicated to upcycling used take-away cups, and has the capability to upcycle 500m cups a year. That would go some way to achieving the Environment Audit Committee’s ambition for all single-use coffee cups to be recycled by 2023.

The queen of refills

Catherine Conway

A long-time vociferous champion of reduced packaging, Conway has been encouraging shoppers to refill their own containers since she had a market stall selling dried goods in 2006. This spring, she launched a DIY refill unit for farm shops and delis.

Called Unpackaged At, it’s a set of gravity bins and dispensers full of cereals, pulses, pastas, rice, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, chocolate and other raw foodstuffs. A specially-designed scale weighs shoppers’ empty containers before they fill them up. “We’re into reusables,” Conway says, “this is a fast solution to ‘plastic-free’.”

The DIY unit is being premiered at Welbeck Farm Shop in Nottinghamshire. “I’m obsessed with farm shops because people drive there (making it easy for them to have their containers with them) and they sell complementary products to us. And local producers could fill the bins.”

Unpackaged At follows on from the refill concessions Conway has installed in four Planet Organic stores. That experience has helped inform her latest venture. “The customer flow is very different because they have to stop and actively do something.” This works for many retailers, she says, because “they’re all interested in retail theatre.”

Meanwhile, a refill set-up impacts on back-of-house, from how products are received to how they’re merchandised. The next step, she says, could be “redesigning the supply chain to support front-of-house”.

Bubble wrap alternative


Could this brown paper mesh replace bubble wrap? A bit like a giant Sellotape dispenser, Hexcel releases packing paper full of small perforations. As the paper is pulled away from the 430m-long roll, it creates a meshed pad that can be used to wrap deliveries. And rather than tape to hold it in place, its hexagonal cells stop it from unravelling.

Hexcel was launched in March by sustainable packaging business Protega Global. It particularly appeals to companies selling online, because they need goods to be packed well for home delivery or click-and-collect.

Beyond Hexcel, the firm has seen an upswing in interest this year. Big blue-chip companies now approach them “for wider-ranging needs for sustainable packaging”, says Protega Global’s Michael Steedman. The upshot is “some interesting research and development projects to design different types of paper-based packaging, including mailing bags, bottle packs, and alternatives to polystyrene”.

Protega Global has set up a team of people to research these thorny issues. “It could open a door for us,” Steedman adds.


Coffee cup recycling


James Cropper



Catherine Conway

Bubble wrap alternative



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