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Recycling: a clear message is needed

23 June 2018

As public opinion turns against plastic packaging, manufacturers and retailers need to step up efforts to find alternatives. However, without clear direction from the Government and local authorities, there is a danger that consumers will simply end up confused about what can be recycled, says Ed Keenan

In 2016, TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall led a campaign to highlight the misconceptions around takeaway coffee cups. He argued that consumers were being hoodwinked into thinking they had chosen an environmentally-friendly product, when they were actually adding to the waste problem.  

Disposable coffee cups are certainly problematic, but it is important to remember they represent just a tiny fraction of the total waste produced by food and drink packaging. Perhaps more pertinent is the fact that there is still a great deal of confusion around what can be recycled – particularly when it comes to composite materials. A salad pot made from cardboard, for instance, looks more sustainable than plastic, but like coffee cups, any plastic barrier coating may well be a costly contaminate to the recycling supply chain.  

Much of the uncertainty around what packaging can be recycled stems from inconsistencies in the processing infrastructure in different parts of the UK. Some local authorities accept virtually every recyclable material, but others are far more limited. If the food manufacturing industry were to introduce more composite packaging, councils would either have to adapt their recycling strategy to accommodate it and take on the cost, or else this waste would simply go to landfill.  

The Government now looks ready to tackle the issue by introducing financial incentives to promote the reduction of single use in the same way that we have seen with the plastic bag tax which reduced consumption by more than 80%.  

One of the most common questions we are asked is what technologies will help satisfy customer demand for reduced plastic over the next five years. The truth is that unless there are consistent policies on recycling, backed by investment in infrastructure and public awareness campaigns, food and drink manufacturers risk buying equipment and machinery that isn’t future proofed. Suppose, for example, plastic packaging was replaced with a biodegradable material – could we be sure that enough councils would accept it as compostable waste to make it sustainable?  

At what cost?
Relatively low oil prices combined with existing economies of scale on plastic production mean that any alternatives to plastic will carry a higher cost.  Manufacturers are faced with the decision as to whether they should invest in new equipment now to avoid the expense to retro-fit machinery, or else sit tight and wait to see whether the trend continues. If the UK experienced another recession, consumers may be less inclined to pay more for cellulose packaging when conventional plastic is cheaper. Even without an economic crisis, many shoppers today rely on budget ranges, where price trumps eco-credentials. It could be that plastic-free is reserved for premium ranges, so manufacturers might only need to adapt some of their processes.  

Over the coming years more retailers and manufacturers are expected come up with innovative ways to reduce plastic waste. Waitrose has already pledged to cut black plastic – which is difficult to process – from its own ranges, while Iceland wants to remove plastic completely from its products. Of course, any alternative would need to offer similar benefits to plastic in terms of cost, durability and product shelf life, while also being easy to manufacture, transport, store and recycle. Get all this right and companies will create a real selling point.  

Sustainable packaging, like coffee pods made from biodegradable vegetable oil, is now emerging at a rapid rate and, generally speaking, much of it can be introduced to factories with minimal modifications to existing equipment. But, without clear national guidance on precisely what can be recycled, and the local infrastructure to support it, manufacturers will remain cautious about introducing wholesale changes.

Ed Keenan is head of process at food and drink consultancy, Integrated Food Projects. 

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