The government’s announcement that it intends to explore with supermarkets the introduction of plastic free aisles where food is sold loose as part of its 25 year environmental plan demands careful consideration.
If plastics packaging is removed from stores we are in real danger of losing the many benefits it provides. The general public is rightly concerned about how we manage packaging at ‘end-of-life’. But by improving our understanding of this issue and increasing investment in both our recycling infrastructure and innovative technologies designed to tackle waste – we can effectively reduce environmental harm.
The avoidance of plastics food packaging all together will actually create more food waste. According to the British Plastics Federation, ‘plastics food waste typically increases by a third in stores without packaging’, since the energy needed to produce food is far greater than the packaging used to protect it.
Plastic packaging is essential therefore, to the storage and transportation of food and most importantly, its protection too – in fact it can triple its shelf-life.
The barrier properties in plastics ensures that food keeps its taste while protecting if from external contamination. So it’s extremely versatile having been adopted widely for loose food. Selling grapes in trays for example, can reduce wastage in store by 20%.
Plastics packaging protects against food contamination too and helps prevent the spreading of germs during its manufacture, transportation and display in store. While transparent packaging allows customers to view produce without having to touch it, preventing bruising.
A small footprint
While the footprint of plastics is dwarfed by alternative materials, Plastics Europe figures state, ‘Only 1.5% of all oil and gas consumed in Europe is used as a raw material to produce plastic packaging, whereas 90% of it is used for heating, transportation and energy generation. If food was packed using other materials than plastics, the related energy consumption would double and greenhouse gas emissions would nearly triple. This would also be accompanied by a 360% increase in the weight of the packaging!’
The true environmental cost of alternatives
We need therefore to consider why plastics was first introduced, by looking at the alternatives, glass and cardboard.
There has been an intention from a health and safety point of view for some years now to remove glass bottles from our shelves as they can easily smash and cause injury. While the transportation cost of heavy glass bottles over long distances is prohibitive, so is the weight of carrying bottles home in our shopping.
Co2 pollution from cardboard
While cardboard packaging is often assumed to be greener, the energy needed for pulp manufacture remains a problem. Particularly when you consider the entire life of paper and cardboard embodies more greenhouse gases than their plastic equivalents.
These products take substantial amounts of energy, crushing trees, mixing wood pulp into slurry and passing the material through massive rollers – it’s the third largest industrial user of energy on the planet. Not to mention, the large volumes of highly polluted waste water created from cardboard and paper manufacturing.
So we all need to increase our understanding, paper and cardboard simply doesn’t last, while plastics can be recycled into new products. Plastics aren’t a significant cause of Co2 pollution like cardboard.
Instead plastics offers a lightweight, flexible, safe, hygienic and cost effective choice with the shelf-life that consumers and retailers demand. It is a greener solution too, if plastics packaging is designed from the outset to satisfy ‘end of life’ recycling, this means no mixing of polymer types and ensuring harder to detect black plastics for example, can be sorted – helping to reduce landfill.
Innovative solutions for end-of-life
Plastics packaging can retain its value beyond end-of-life if it’s effectively sorted. As an additives and masterbatch specialist, we were chosen to support a WRAP funded project to find a solution to the problem of recycling black plastics.
Since at present, black food trays feature relatively cheap carbon black and other pigments which cannot be detected by existing near infrared (NIR) sorting systems used by recyclers, as they reflect little or no radiation.
As a result, we have pioneered the development of a range of novel NIR reflecting colourants to enable the sorting of black packaging in the mixed plastics waste stream. This technology has been proven conclusively in a series of material trials.
The adoption of this novel technology and other solutions for black plastics is now under consideration by a cross-industry forum led by the waste charity Recoup. A deadline has been set for the end of this year to agree a roadmap for the recycling of black plastics.
Finding innovative solutions such as our NIR colourants range, can help capture this valuable resource if adopted by responsible producers. If we continue down this route of banning plastics packaging however, it will be like turning the clock back to an era of shorter shelf-life, far greater food waste and increased Co2 pollution. It is important that we are mindful of the issues that plastics was designed to solve in the first place.