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Plastic in the Food and Drink Industry

13 Feb 2018
Rosina Geraghty

Plastic in the Food and Drink Industry

Over the last century the discourse surrounding plastic has changed drastically; from a major scientific development to an environmental burden. The turning point came in the late 1950s and early 1960s where significant developments in the manufacturing process decreased the cost of making plastics and paved the path for mass production.

The Present Situation

According to an investigation conducted by the Guardian, leading UK supermarkets are said to be producing more than 800,000 tons of plastic packaging waste a year. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported that just 14% of the plastic packaging used globally is recycled, while 40% ends up in landfill and a third in ecosystems. These figures demonstrate the extent of manufacturer dependency on plastics and how much they contribute to the problems we face today. For example, Unilever has indicated that the company’s plastic packaging “plays a critical role in making our products appealing, safe and enjoyable for our consumers”.

While consumers are benefiting from the production and use of plastics (such as supermarkets being able to offer a wider selection of produce from further afield), the environmental threat is evident. By 2050 it is estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans, and if consumption continues at the current rates in 25 years’ time the people in the UK would have used 192.5bn plastic bottles. Similarly, around 11bn pieces of plastic have contaminated vital reefs in the Asia- Pacific region, resulting in disease which is contributing to their depletion.

What manufacturers are doing

FoodDrinkEurope has set 17 goals with 169 targets which are a core part of the UN 2030 agenda for sustainable development. Similarly, the UK government has a plan to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste within 25 years, apply a new charge for single-use plastic containers, encourage supermarkets to introduce aisles plastic- free packaging and help developing nations deal with plastic waste. Several UK manufacturers appear to taking responsibility for the issue by actively setting goals to drive systematic change to end global plastic pollution.

Cranswick has commended the Governments 25 Year Environmental Plan, however has suggested that the goals can be achieved in a shorter period and should be a priority for every link in the supply chain. The company has therefore committed to reducing plastic packaging weight from farm to fork by 50%, re-using internal materials in a closed loop system across the business, and recycling all packaging. Unilever has also committed to ensuring that all its plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. The supermarket Iceland also plans to remove all plastic packaging from own-label products within the next five years.  Co-op have followed suit by pledging to develop standard mainstream plastic-free teabags and, with sales at around 4.6 million boxes of tea a year, there is hope that many other manufacturers will soon follow. The Co-op have also been working on single polymer packaging for minced beef which increases the ease of recycling at consumer level. The Krehalon- Duniba partnership that is working on this development is showing that the same pack quality can still be achieved with a reduction to the total pack weight, which in turn reduces the harm to the environment.

Opportunities 

The plans and deadlines being proposed present a valuable opportunity for food and drink manufacturers to innovate process and packaging solutions, leading to a positive impact on their sustainable development. Vegware’s compost collection service for businesses in Scotland is a good example of this approach. The company is attempting to help foodservice providers close the manufacturing loop and join the circular economy.

The action being taken to reduce plastic packaging may also contribute to a reduction in food wastage. Deals such as buy-one-get-one-free may be affecting purchasing habits and prompting bulk buying, in turn resulting in food wastage when it passes its sell-by-date. It is suggested that we throw away almost seven million tons of food a year which converts to wasting around £13billion of food, meaning £13billion of plastic food packaging is also being thrown out needlessly.

It is vital that the ongoing developments made towards reducing plastic usage within food and drink manufacturing are being discussed and implemented around the industry. We are seeing more and more companies adopting environmental strategies which are aiming to embed sustainability into what they do, how they do it and why. This hopefully represents a long-term trajectory for the industry.

 

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Author

Rosina Geraghty
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