Business innovation | Opinion

Can plastic be frozen out of packaging sustainably?

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A rapid shift from plastic in store

UK retailer Iceland’s vow to cut all plastic out of own-brand packaging in six years has grabbed the headlines, but questions remain around the impacts of the alternatives

If the UK prime minister Theresa May’s 25-year plan for the environment was designed to spur action from the business community, it certainly had the desired effect. Immediately she announced a commitment to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042, one of the country’s biggest supermarket retailers responded with ambitious goals to do just that – and two decades ahead of schedule.

The frozen food retailer Iceland says it will become the first such chain anywhere in the world to get rid of plastic packaging from all of its own-brand products by the end of 2023.

Iceland’s move suggests an ongoing defence of current plastic packaging no longer resonates with the general public, in the UK and beyond. In fact, a recent Iceland public survey said that 80% of people in the UK would endorse a supermarket’s move to go plastic-free, with almost 70% saying other supermarkets should follow this lead.

Ditch the disposable

So, the pressure is on. Just hours after Iceland’s announcement was made, Greenpeace issued a direct-email rallying cry urging supporters to sign its petition for UK supermarkets, which currently generate one million tonnes of plastic packaging a year, to ditch disposable plastic packaging entirely.

According to John Sauven, Greenpeace UK’s executive director, in December a group of former heads of the UK’s biggest retailers signed a joint statement explaining that the “only solution” to plastic pollution was for retailers to reject plastic entirely in favour of more sustainable alternatives like recycled paper, steel, glass and aluminium.

But is a complete ban on plastic realistic? The ubiquitous material is widely used for good reason; it acts as a brilliant barrier in protecting food, for example, while its ability to be transparent is great for marketers to play around with.

More food waste?

Mike Barry, director of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer, has been quick to explain the complexity of the issue, arguing that the continued use of plastic is currently a crucial component in the drive to reduce food waste. Right now, M&S like many other retailers, is focused on increasing the recycled content contained within its packaging, urging suppliers to improve the recyclability of the materials being used.

For Fiona Ball, head of responsible business at media giant Sky – which has itself launched an ambitious plan to remove all single-use plastics from its operations, products and supply chain by 2020 – believes part of the answer lies in developing the right infrastructure to make sure plastic has a value after life. “We need to take into account the lifecycle of plastics and ensure we have appropriate infrastructure to facilitate recycling, reuse and reselling,” she says.

Ball also makes the point that there are too many different types of plastic around – the public is not trained to distinguish between them or know what to do with them.

Where’s it from?

To replace plastic, companies will need to harness and trust new technologies. Replacing plastic with wood-pulp-based alternatives, as Iceland proposes, will have an inevitable impact on forests.

A mass shift to such products would require a significant scale-up in terms of sustainable forests if the result is not to be massive deforestation risks. Iceland’s current policy on pulp has the goal of sourcing from FSC or PEFC certified forests by 2022 – which will be an impressive achievement if all the new packaging is included. Added to this is that some paper-based food packaging – where it is touching the product – typically has to use virgin pulp as recycled paper can contain contaminants.

Companies will also need to accept the potential carbon implications of switching out lightweight plastics for heavier paper and pulp-based packaging. Ball says, however, that this is something that ought to be “balanced out by the alternatives since the carbon would have been locked up longer in a product’s use rather than in a short life and throw away scenario”.

Who pays?

And, who will pay for change? A number of packaging companies argue that some potential plastic-alternatives will be much more expensive, at least in the short term. Ian Jamie, managing director of Staeger Clear Packaging says it is “important we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We have tried to make use of biodegradable materials, but the cost is higher than for PET.”

There are some innovative start-ups, such as Skipping Rocks Lab – which uses plant-based materials to replace singe-use PET bottles – but they will need continued support and investment to sufficiently scale to be useful.

Adam Hall is head of sustainability at outdoor sportswear company Surfdome, which has reduced the amount of plastic it uses by the equivalent of 1.2m plastic bottles since 2015. “There is no one-fix solution to the marine plastic crisis; we need to tackle it on all fronts – designing for circularity, improving recycling, reducing, changing consumer behaviours, and so on,” he says.

“But the fastest route to change is in the business community because consumers are influenced by business – and government policy will only change once the business case has been proved.

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