A recent study by Which? has shown that many of our favourite foods such as cheese, crisps and chocolate are not packaged in recyclable packaging. For many, it has come as a surprise that well-known brands have not yet committed to sustainable alternatives.
Which? looked into 89 of the UK’s most well-known grocery brands and has found that most of them are coming up short with their environmental efforts.
The two main issues are that packaging is either totally non-recyclable (or extremely difficult to recycle) or, where packaging is recyclable, labels are unclear and confusing.
Which? found that, of the products they studied, only 34% of packaging was totally recyclable, leaving a huge two thirds of packets condemned to landfill. The worst culprit was found to be crisp packets, as only 3% of them were recyclable.
Similarly, only one third of the chocolate wrappers tested were recyclable. Mars’ M&Ms, along with Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars, Twirl Bites and Bitsa Wispa were amongst those that were found not to be recyclable from home at all. Bad news for those of us with a sweet tooth!
There were also issues in the world of cheese, as snack packs of Cathedral City and Babybel are packaged in plastic net bags. These are not only hard to recycle, but can cause issues if they become tangled in recycling machinery.
A Lack of Labelling
An additional problem is that where products were able to be recycled from home, the packaging lacked the appropriate labelling and directions on how to do so. Which? found that 41% of the recyclable packaging had no relevant labelling. Ambiguous labelling poses a real barrier to effective recycling at home, and it is a shame that recyclable packaging may end up in landfill because consumers are not being directed correctly.
Confusing labelling has long been an issue within the packaging industry, leaving consumers unsure of how to dispose of items correctly, and in some cases even being misled by vague labels into believing that non-recyclable products can be recycled. A 2019 study from RECOUP found that despite having good intentions, recycling efforts were being blocked by confusing labels.
When it comes to recycling, it may surprise people to know that there is no nationwide strategy. Local authorities accept and process different materials differently. This means that a household in one area may be able to recycle something whereas another household in a different area cannot. So, certain labels are only applicable to specific areas. A recycling sign does not necessarily mean a packet will be accepted for recycling by your particular local authority.
Clearly, the waters surrounding packaging labels are very muddy, and following their study, Which? has appealed to the government for clearer labelling. This will hopefully make things easier for consumers to understand whether packaging is recyclable, and how they need to recycle it. There is also more light at the end of the tunnel, as the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) has launched its new recycling label rules, with an aim to move the majority of packaging into a binary labelling system: “Recycle” or “Don’t Recycle”. This is to be implemented over the next 3 years.
So What’s The Good News?
Happily, Which? also found an area that is excelling in being eco-friendly. When it came to fizzy drinks, the packaging was all found to be 100% recyclable and the labelling on all products was correct.
Further, many of the companies involved in the study have made commitments to make more sustainable choices. Nestle is committing to making 100% of it’s packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. Similarly, Kellogg’s, who make Pringles, have promised to make their packaging 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. They have recently started trialling 90% paper-based Pringles tubes in select Tesco stores.
Additionally, Babybel are setting up a UK and Ireland partnership with waste disposal company TerraCycle. So, it does seem that larger brands are taking notice of the increasing pressure from consumers to use recyclable packaging. A greener future could well be on the horizon. ELLIE BALDERSON, MARKETING
In an increasingly eco-conscious world, plastic is falling out of favour with consumers. Single-use plastics that are often used in food packaging, are being dropped. The top choice for its replacement? Paper.
Plastic has been singled out as a key culprit impacting our planet negatively. It has also become a very emotional issue amongst consumers, as we are constantly seeing distressing images of plastic rings around the necks of turtles, and dead whales with stomachs full of plastic. Not only does plastic harm wildlife and cause pollution due to its longevity, but the process of creating plastic contributes to carbon emissions and the use of fossil fuels.
So, I want to see how paper measures up to plastic, both in terms of function and regarding sustainability. Can paper achieve the same results as plastic when used in packaging, particularly for food? Is it realistic at this stage to go entirely plastic-free in favour of paper-based alternatives? Is paper truly the eco-friendly hero it has been hailed as?
I want to try and get the most balanced view possible of both materials, and there is no doubt that both plastic and paper have their pros and cons.
To evaluate the sustainability of paper and plastic, it’s important to look at the whole life cycle: from sourcing, to processing and production, and then to end of life.
Paper and Plastic Production
Regarding its creation, plastic is notably unsustainable. It is made from non-renewable fossil fuels, with around 4% of the world’s oil supplies being used for plastic production. There are also considerable CO2 emissions when plastic is made. About three tonnes of CO2 is created for every tonne of plastic made, compared with around 0.8 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of paper. From this perspective, paper is clearly the more sustainable option.
This said, paper production is not always entirely eco-friendly. A huge amount of water goes into paper production. According to the BBC, you need between two and 13 litres of water just to make an A4 piece of paper. Further, a huge amount of energy goes into paper production, too.
It is also important to look at where paper is sourced from. Many plastic lobbyists have criticised paper as contributing to global deforestation. Indeed, paper that is sourced from the world’s forests would have a negative impact on the planet as it would contribute to the destruction of habitats and mean that there are fewer trees to absorb CO2. However, much of the paper that is manufactured today is sourced from controlled plantations that are solely for this purpose, and so it does not contribute to deforestation. Products with FSC certifications mean that the trees used are from a sustainable source.
So, when we compare the production of both plastic and paper, it is clear that paper has the environmental edge. Although it is not perfect, paper can be sourced from sustainable sources and leads to lower CO2 emissions.
End of Life
By ‘end of life’, I mean what happens to these materials after use. Can they be recycled, or will they end up in landfill or our oceans?
When it comes to recyclability, paper is a clear stand out. Paper is easily recycled through a relatively simple process of repulping, and it is much easier to create 100% recycled paper products than 100% recycled plastic products.
Whilst a lot of plastic is indeed recyclable, there is still a large amount of plastic packaging that cannot be recycled at all. Have a look at my blog on household grocery brands for more on this. Further, the process of recycling plastic tends to be more complicated than paper. It involves heat moulding and blowing, and plastic can be contaminated with things like ink, and so recycled plastic is less consistent than new plastic. Additionally, unstable resin can break machines as its reaction to heat can be unpredictable, which can lead to wasted resources. For this reason, manufacturers need to find the right balance between recycled and virgin plastic, and it’s harder to create an 100% recycled plastic product.
This is not to say that recyclable plastic is not a good option, as it is much superior to the alternative, however paper is certainly the more sustainable option from this perspective.
Plastic is very good at doing its job. It is strong, durable and flexible. In the food industry, it is a vital part of extending the shelf life of consumable products, and its propensity to be completely transparent is a bonus in allowing customers to see what they are buying before purchase.
Therefore, to be a viable replacement for plastic, paper needs to be able to fulfil these same functions (unless there is a total overhaul of the supply chain and the way we buy food). To successfully meet these criteria, paper usually needs to have a coating or barrier, to ensure that it can maintain rigidity when filled with moist food and products. This is also important for keeping food fresh.
A main challenge of switching to paper is that it can mean it compromises the shelf life of food, which some argue may lead to an increase in food waste. In this case, we would essentially be replacing one environmental problem with a new one. So, it is vital that paper packaging has an effective coating. Further, this coating must not interfere with the recycling process.
There is also the issue of transparency, as customers like to see the food they are about to purchase. This can be difficult to achieve with paper, although some touch-transparent products are now emerging, where you can see the food inside when in contact with paper.
At present, then, there is still work to be done on ensuring that using paper in packaging does not compromise the effectiveness of packaging.
What Are We doing?
At farepac, we are committed to developing eco-friendly alternatives to plastic packaging. For example, our Earthpouch is made entirely of paper, with a coating on the inside that acts as a barrier. This means food stays fresh and the packaging stays intact, and the pouches are fully recyclable. We also ensure that the paper we use is FSC certified, so our customers can be confident that it is sourced sustainably.
We continue to find innovative ways to incorporate paper, without sacrificing shelf life and freshness.
So, Can Paper Replace Plastic?
Whilst it is not inherently 100% eco-friendly, paper is a more sustainable option than plastic. Being in a climate emergency means that sustainability must be prioritised, however this needs to be done carefully, ensuring that material switches do not cause a huge rise in food waste. It is also important to ensure that paper-based products are sourced from sustainable places and can disposed of effectively at the end of the life cycle.
It wouldn’t be realistic to say that paper can replace plastic entirely at this time. But perhaps in the future, with further development, it could become a much more viable option. The next steps that need to take place are ensuring that paper products fulfil the same needs as plastic products in terms of shelf life extension and preventing food going off. It is also important for paper packaging to be able to maintain its shape in different conditions.
Farepac have already created some excellent paper-based products that are able to replace plastics, which is a huge step in the right direction. We will continue to facilitate these sustainable switches as we make further developments.
ELLIE BALDERSON, MARKETING
A number of years ago, there was talk of the death of independent shops. It was believed that the likes of high street butchers and greengrocers were going to become extinct in the wake of supermarkets. The pull of supermarkets was based around price and ease of being able to buy everything you need from one place. However, more recently there has been a resurgence in demand for local, independent food shops.
The Millennial Effect
I moved to East London last year, and found myself surrounded by many independent shops, butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers. One only needs to take a 10-minute stroll through Hackney to realise that independent is in vogue. As someone with a keen interest in food and produce, this has been fantastic. I cherish my Sunday afternoon walks to the butchers to pick up something for a roast, and I love the huge selection of fresh veg in my closest greengrocer.
I am not unique in my love of all things independent, and my fellow millennials have played a large part in making small businesses and shops popular again. As a generation, millennials are food-focussed and very conscious of quality. Taste is no longer the only factor to consider, and food choices are influenced by politics, health concerns and personal ethics. We care where food comes from and what it is packaged in, and transparency is vital. As the largest working generation at present, millennial tastes have a huge impact on the food industry. Of course, millennials are not alone in this shift towards local and independent shops, however they are arguably the most visible due to social media usage, and I believe they have played a large part in the step away from supermarket chains.
Why Do People Love Independent?
There are several reasons why people may choose to shop in a local, independent food shop as opposed to a large supermarket. As discussed above, a huge part of this comes down to transparency and traceability. People like to know what they are eating, and where it has come from. Supermarket goods are supplied from all over the world, whereas many smaller food shops often focus on locally sourced produce. This can put consumers’ minds at rest and also aligns with the desire that many have to reduce their carbon footprints. If the steak you buy from an independent butcher’s was sourced from a farm 5 miles down the road, you are reassured that it has not contributed to excessive carbon emissions through shipping and transport.
As well as locally sourced products, independent farm shops and delis often stock products that people are unable to find in the supermarket. A rise in craft breweries, small cheesemakers and niche food start-ups mean there are a huge variety of products other than large household brands found in supermarkets, and many people enjoy discovering them.
Enterprise For London has also found that people enjoy the customer service and sense of community that comes with shopping at independent stores. When shopping in smaller food shops, customers have a lot more interaction with shopkeepers and can expect a more personal service. Further, the high street butcher or fishmonger feels like the centre of a community, and people feel a sense of loyalty towards their local shops.
What Has Changed With COVID-19?
As much as we are all tired of talking about coronavirus, the pandemic has greatly impacted shopping habits. The reasons already outlined for choosing independent stores are now compounded by post-pandemic mentalities, and we find new reasons for wanting to shop locally.
AHDB reported that in the first 12 weeks after lockdown, an extra £45 million was spent at butcher’s shops. This represents an uplift of 39% from 14th June. Similarly, The Guardian reported that independent grocery stores experienced a 63% surge in trade as people shifted to local shops during lockdown. A fishmongers in Notting Hill even reported a 200% rise in sales during the nationwide quarantine. These numbers staggering and are concrete evidence of a huge change in shopper behaviour resulting from COVID-19.
So, what were the reasons for the changes? Unsurprisingly, a main reason was fear of crowds. Naturally, this led to a huge spike in online shopping, but it also caused people to want to shop at much smaller establishments than a typical supermarket. Many small shops only allowed one or two visitors in at a time, which increased consumer confidence. Also, you can often see how many people are in a smaller shop just by glancing through the window. This allowed people to decide whether to enter or not if they were concerned about contact with others. Similarly, supermarkets were often in the press for having extensive queues. Many people felt that these could be avoided by shopping at their local, independent stores. This way they could save time and avoid others simultaneously.
Product availability was another reason for the switch to local independents. There were many cases of shortages in staple products at big supermarket chains, and several items had restrictions placed on them. People found that availability was less of an issue when visiting their local farm shops or butchers, and this impacted shopping preferences.
So, the pandemic has added to the myriad of reasons why people prefer to shop at independent shops. However, will this surge last once the effects of COVID-19 wear off? The YouGov Consumer Tracker, conducted in April, found that half of customers say they will proactively seek out British product once restrictions are eased. This could suggest that many people are still prioritising local produce with low food miles.
Perhaps the pandemic has served to cement a love of independent shops based around sustainability, quality, traceability, and customer service. ELLIE BALDERSON, MARKETING