Innovation with plastics in the UK’s food & drink sector

Former FDF President Gavin Darby names “circular economy” a top priority for new decade.

A tide has turned in the way the world views plastics, and efforts to reduce its use – especially single-use – are essential in moving toward a more sustainable future. But urgent action must be met with thoughtful solutions in this complex issue, as alternatives – namely, glass, paper, biodegradable materials and other seemingly “quick fixes” – come with their own unique set of consequences.

Plastics packaging is used in the food supply chain because it supports the safe distribution of food over long distances, minimising waste by keeping food fresh for longer. A 2016 review of studies on food waste found that 88m tonnes of food is wasted every year in the EU – about 20% of food produced, 173kg per person. Former President of the UK’s Food & Drink Federation (FDF), Gavin Darby comments that “food waste is in itself a huge issue of sustainability.“

For the UK’s food and drink sector, packaging plays an integral role in protecting and preserving products throughout the supply chain and helping to prevent food waste; so solutions intended to only demonise plastics don’t serve to lend nuance to the complexities, as glass and other materials can be less cost effective while simultaneously shortening product lifespan. Gavin Darby, says that “sustainability – especially, efforts around plastics – will be high on the agenda in the new decade” for policy leaders, manufacturers and people throughout the country, while the move toward a circular economy, he says, is key. 

Our current system fails to capture the economic benefits of plastics, says Helen Jordan from the British Plastics Foundation. “We need to stop thinking of plastic as ‘waste,’ but as a renewable resource that needs to be disposed of correctly.” By design, the circular economy is restorative and regenerative, focusing materials on a closed loop system rather than single-use. For plastics, this means simultaneously keeping the value of the materials in the economy without leaking into the natural environment – a solution admittedly easier said than done, requiring restructured policy and increased participation.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported that more than four decades after the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, only 14% of the plastic packaging used globally is recycled, while 40% ends up in landfill and 32% in ecosystems. The “take, make, dispose” mindset that has long-informed business models requires a fundamental rethink to “reduce, recycle, reuse,” says the report, keeping plastics characterised as an effective global material while defining a plan for its future role. In order to promote the circular economy while continuing to reap the benefits of plastic packaging, we must fall in line in a few key areas:  

Increasing demand for recyclables

One of the biggest barriers facing a circular plastics economy is a dysfunctional market or low demand for recycled plastics. Most plastics are made from fossil fuels, which are currently cheaper than recycled materials, weakening the economic benefit of plastic recycling. So, while the current global climate has seen companies boast bold commitments and lofty goals for recyclability, we must also challenge industry leaders to create demand in stimulating markets for recycled materials. In summary, Gavin Darby remarks “recovery in itself is of no value unless a market is stimulated. “

Thoughtful design for recyclability

Plastics are made from polymers, which can be highly customised to meet each manufacturer’s specific requirements – a convenient diversity that complicates the recycling process. In a push for a more circular economy, end-of-life needs to be top priority throughout product development processes. New guidelines – like those from WRAP and CEFLEX – are being put in place across the industry to simplify the recycling process and develop new infrastructure to collect, sort and recycle.

Updating global infrastructure

There is huge progress to be made in all markets, but much of the plastic waste currently circulating in the world’s oceans is thought to originate in just five Asian countries. Investing in waste collection and recycling infrastructure on a global scale is the only way to make a dent in the quantity of plastic released into the oceans. Just last year, Unilever introduced new technology to recycle plastic sachet packaging – a common recycling issue in developing countries, notoriously challenging to dispose of responsibly without a viable recycling solution. The so-called CreaSolv Process Technology was launched in Indonesia, where the company sells more than half of its products in sachets. Additionally, the company sets up waste collection schemes to collect sachets, working with local waste banks, governments and retailers.

Chemical recycling

While mechanical recycling is constrained by contamination and notorious complications in material separation, chemical recycling strips materials down to their original chemical building blocks and builds plastics back up into new materials. Using chemical recycling on waste plastic to make food-grade PET is an exciting new innovation – not just from plastic bottles, but also waste recovered from oceans and even polyester textiles. Alongside the chemical industry, consumer goods companies are heavily investing in the technology – Loop Industries, a leading innovator in this space, has signed deals with PepsiCo, L’Oréal, and Evian; and Coca Cola is a member of DEMETO’s advisory board, a group of partners working to make the chemical recycling of PET a global process that can be sustainable, profitable and scalable.