A world without plastic seems unimaginable given its prevalence in the market, but the material is relatively new, only appearing on the mass market in the 1950s. As a packaging material, it is robust and versatile, making it a safe, hygienic and cheap option for food manufacturers. However, the same tough and long-lasting properties that make plastic so popular are also a disaster for the environment.

Since the 1950s, it is estimated that 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced. Without fast action, this is forecast to grow to 34 billion tonnes by 2050, with the majority of this waste plastic likely to end up in landfill, or polluting the world’s oceans. In the UK, the Marine Conservation Society’s Great British Beach Clean found that single-use food and drink litter made up roughly 20% of the rubbish collected from UK beaches, with 138 pieces of so-called ‘on-the-go’ litter on average for every 100m of beach surveyed.

In response to mounting concern about plastics waste, the UK Government has unveiled a 25-year plan to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042 in a bid to protect the environment. Under the proposed plan from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), supermarkets will be encouraged to introduce plastic-free aisles in which all the food is loose to try and motivate consumers to embrace greener purchasing decisions. But what is the food industry doing to tackle the curb plastic pollution?

EU plastics initiative: cleaning up a continent with environmental commitments

The UK is not alone in its clampdown on excessive plastic packaging. In January, the first-ever Europe-wide strategy on plastics was adopted by the European Union (EU). Under the new plans, rules on packaging will be introduced to increase the recyclability of plastic and drive demand for recycled plastic content.

According to the EU, Europe generates around 25 million tonnes of plastic waste each year. But only 30% of this is procured for recycling processes. Most plastic waste in Europe ends up in landfill or is incinerated. This un-recycled plastic can take centuries to break down and millions of tonnes of plastics litter end up in the oceans, an alarming sign that has caused growing concern among European citizens and pushed representatives to develop a solution to curb the problem of plastics waste.

The EU has already made a significant effort to reduce plastic waste, introducing rules to address marine litter and through the Plastic Bags Directive, which it claims has significantly reduced the use of plastic bags in several EU member states. With the newly approved strategy, the EU aims to build upon previous developments by making all packaging on the EU market recyclable by 2030, reducing the consumption of single-use plastic and restricting the intentional use of microplastics.

“If we don’t change the way we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050. We must stop plastics getting into our water, our food, and even our bodies,” said first vice-president Frans Timmermans, responsible for sustainable development in the EU. “The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more. This is a challenge that citizens, industry and governments must tackle together. With the EU Plastics Strategy we are also driving a new and more circular business model. We need to invest in innovative new technologies that keep our citizens and our environment safe whilst keeping our industry competitive.”

Setting a standard: changing the face of UK plastic use across the food industry

Shortly after the plan was announced, Tetra Pak, one of the world’s leading food processors and packaging providers, voiced support for the EU plastics strategy, stating that the company would commit to using recycled plastics once they have been validated as safe and legally approved for use as a food contact material.

“Although around 75% of our packaging is made from paperboard, we also use plastics as a protective layer and to produce the package openings,” said Tetra Pak president and CEO Dennis Jönsson. “The EU’s Plastics Strategy is an important step towards a low-carbon circular economy based on recycling, renewables and responsible sourcing, and we are ready to make our contribution.”

Food suppliers have also gotten behind the UK initiative, with some companies announcing separate pledges alongside the UK Government’s plan to reduce plastics waste. One of Britain’s leading premium food suppliers, Cranswick plc, launched a campaign to dramatically reduce its use of plastic by 50% by 2025, and pledged that the food group would only use plastic that is sustainably sourced and 100% recyclable. Moreover, the group vowed that all packaging will be designed to be intuitively recycled by the consumer and easily recovered through household recycling collections

“Our consumers are constantly demanding convenient food solutions, and the packaging solutions currently available can make the problem worse.  Much of this packaging is not easily recyclable and we have a responsibility to address this issue,” said Cranswick group commercial director Jim Brisby. “The results of an internal sustainability review in 2017 illustrated how important waste and recycling is to our staff and stakeholders. This strategy will now form a major part of Cranswick’s new group sustainability initiative ‘Second Nature’, which seeks to address key issues from farm to fork. Our ambition is to lead sustainability across agriculture and food production on a global scale by integrating sustainability as second nature to what we do, how we work, and why we do it.”

Alongside the campaign, Cranswick also launched a call to action, urging its peers in the food industry to adopt similar methods and take responsibility for the environmental impact of plastics waste.

“The environmental impact of plastics, with regards to the damage they cause to the world’s oceans and landfill, has become a major global issue and one that we seek to address as a matter of urgency,” says Cranswick CEO Adam Couch. “Ensuring a sustainable future for our planet should be a priority for every retailer, manufacturer, local authority and individual globally – and it is our collective responsibility to ensure there is the opportunity to be able to reduce, reuse and recycle as much as is possible to minimise the impact on our environment.”

Being more transparent: major supermarkets commit to ‘plastic-free’ food aisles

Until recently, few supermarkets were transparent about their plastic waste. In the UK, they keep their plastic footprint out of the public domain with a confidentiality agreement signed with the agencies involved in the British recycling compliance scheme. So, the amount of plastic packaging created by supermarkets and the amount of money used to fund their recycling is kept secret. But environmental consultants, Eunomia estimated that tops supermarkets create more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste each year, which is more than half of the 1.5 million tonnes produced annually by UK households.

But this lack of transparency appears to be changing. In January one of the UK’s leading frozen food retailers, Iceland Foods, broke its silence on plastic waste and became the first supermarket chain in the country to commit to eliminating plastics packaging in all of its own-brand products. The supermarket publicly pledged that such packaging materials would be phased out within the next five years, with paper and pulp trays and paper bags replacing the plastics packaging currently in use on own-brand Iceland Foods products.

The announcement sparked a wave of similar promises from supermarkets in the UK. Waitrose reacted to the plastics backlash, pledging to scarp black plastic trays from its own-brand products from 2019. Black plastic gained significant attention last year when it was revealed that it contained a carbon black colourant that prevented the packaging from being detected by recyclers, resulting in approximately 1.3 billion trays being sent to landfill or incineration each year. Waitrose claims that it has already removed 65% of black plastic from its fresh fruit and vegetables and plans to completely remove it from fruit and vegetable, meat, poultry and fish ranges by the end of 2018.

While these are small steps in the right direction for DEFRA’s 25-year plan, outside of the UK environmental campaigners have turned the ‘plastic-free’ aisle vision into a reality. In February, environmental campaign group A Plastic Planet and Dutch supermarket Ekoplaza launched a plastic-free aisle in Amsterdam, which is claimed to be the first of its kind. The scheme allows shoppers to select from 700 everyday items, which are all free from plastic packaging. Having established the first location, Ekoplaza plans to extend the plastic-free aisle concept across each of its 74 stores.

A new approach:  benefits to the economy and plastics sector

According to the EU, adopting a more sustainable approach to using plastics in the food industry has the potential to be highly profitable, both for member states and for manufacturers.

The plastics sector in the EU is substantial. It employs roughly 1.5 million people and turned over €340 billion in 2015. As such the sector is very important to the European economy. But, EU representatives believe that increasing the sustainability of the plastics sector can open new opportunities for innovation, competitiveness and job creation.

Currently, the potential for recycling plastic waste, both in the UK and in the EU remains largely untapped. Less than a quarter of plastic waste collected for recycling and a significant share of that treated in third countries, where environmental protections may be less established. But exporting waste may no longer be a viable option, especially now that China plans to ban the import of recycling waste from March. Britain currently exports around 500,000 tonnes of waste to China for recycling. As such the industry has been forced to rapidly readdress how plastic is disposed of.

While there is a long way to go before we reach the 2025 goal date set out by DEFRA, the shock decision may be the spark needed to push the food industry to pursue more sustainable, environmentally friendly packaging materials.