Greener packaging - it’s straightforward, right? Plastics are "bad", while paper and cardboard are "good". Well actually, it’s not quite that simple, and even the experts don’t agree. Landfill, where most of the UK’s waste ends up, is under huge pressure. Space is due to run out within the next five to 10 years, according to Defra. And with conventional plastics taking between 200 and 500 years to break down in landfill, it’s obvious that we cannot keep burying it underground, then burying our heads in the sand about the environmental impact.
But the battle for greener packaging is more complex than plastic versus paper and cardboard. First of all, paper and card, if dumped in landfill, degrade and produce greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. This is why the government is targeting biodegradable waste first - aiming to recycle or compost greater proportions year-on-year.
Also, some plastics are recyclable; Britain is expected to meet its 2008 plastic recycling target of 22.5% by weight this year. But plastics recycling presents economic and logistical challenges, so Defra is focusing most of its effort on recycling or composting biodegradable waste.
Moreover, there’s a new player on the plastics scene. Starch-based plastics - or bioplastics - have emerged as a viable, natural and sustainable alternative to plastic and paper-based packaging. Then there’s the carbon footprint issue. Plastics nay-sayers flag up the damaging side-effects of plastic manufacture, while pro-plastics people counter that, as it is lightweight, it has less of a carbon footprint at the distribution stage than cardboard.
Amid all the issues, it seems sensible to consult an expert. Mike Webster, waste specialist at charity Waste Watch, thinks bakers should approach claims of degradability with caution. "There are lots of types of plastic with different types of degradability," he says. "Some will degrade in sunlight, which is not much use if it is buried in the ground. And some packaging which says it’s compostable frankly just isn’t."
Webster says he would push businesses "towards recyclable cardboard and paper", and he also approves of bioplastics, which "compost quite well". So, heeding his advice, what is available on the market?
One of the companies that has spotted the growing possibilities for sustainable packaging is two-year-old Vegware Sustainable Disposables. Director Joe Frankel was working in the software industry in the US, when he saw that the quality of biodegradable packaging was improving year by year and, with that, came a wider variety of applications. One of the Edinburgh-based company’s stated goals is to enable a "paradigm shift in how waste is managed".
Packaging available from Vegware includes cutlery, tableware, cups and deli items, sandwich wedges, takeaway boxes, napkins, bags and sheets, made from recycled paper, vegetable starch or bagasse - a waste fibre made from pressing sugar cane. Frankel says businesses should think about the total environmental impact of the packaging they use. "The manufacturing process for our products is so much cleaner than the high-volume injection moulding plants used for plastic," he explains.
But what about the cost? Vegware’s cutlery, for example, costs around 1p more per item than standard plastic. On the other hand, its takeaway boxes made from bagasse cost less than their polystyrene equivalents. Frankel says if businesses plan to introduce greener packaging, they should use it as a marketing tool to attract new business. "You’re talking about an extra 1p on a fork, so that could be £1,000 more on a catering budget in the year. I tell people to put it on their marketing budget instead. So compare that £1,000 to taking out any kind of advertising."
Another firm that supports the greener-packaging-as-marketing-tool theory is Perivale-based Packaging Environmental. Director of the one-year-old firm Devesh Patel says businesses need to take heed of consumer pressure and switch to sustainable, ethical packaging, both for the sake of the planet and their brand. "Consumers are more interested in finding out about businesses’ green credentials," he says. "They are much more sensitive now about whether businesses are responsible in their practices."
All of Packaging Environmental’s products, which include cups, food containers and cutlery, are biodegradable and made from "renewable and ethical sources". Patel says sustainable packaging is priced much more competitively than it was 10 years ago - and with oil prices on the rise, traditional oil-based plastics aren’t likely to get cheaper.
Closing the loop
Greener options are also available from larger companies such as Solo Cup. The food-to-go packaging specialist has signed a contract with recycling service Closed Loop London, a public/private venture. Closed Loop will take 35,000 tonnes of recovered plastic every year and turn it back into recycled food grade PET (rPET). Solo Cup says it will be first to market with a range of "fully recycled and recyclable disposable products" using the material.
Tony Waters, managing director of Solo Cup Europe says the company has taken a stand "in favour of championing the closed loop principle. This way, packaging used for food products will be recycled back into packaging for food products".
Solo Cup Europe is taking 20% of the rPET output from Closed Loop, and has also announced the sponsorship of the Closed Loop Office Recycling Scheme, which is pioneering the recycling of materials, particularly food packaging, in the workplace, initially in London.
Given the amount of sometimes contradictory information available on green packaging options, it is hardly surprising that another packaging supplier, Flitwick-based Colpac, believes in shying away from phrases like "green" and "eco-friendly". Marketing manager Jo Sheward says the suppliers’ job is to be straightforward about the qualities of each material rather than declaring they are "green" or "environmentally friendly". Clients should be free to take the information about their biodegradable and recyclable products, then make up their own minds, she says. "Ultimately, it’s about being carbon-neutral, ensuring that whatever you do has the least impact on the environment," she says.
When all is said and done, however, your business is only as "green" as waste facilities allow. There is little point introducing recyclable or biodegradable packaging if it’s just going to end up in landfill, producing greenhouse gases. Companies like London Bio Packaging (see Useful Contacts) offer a fully closed-loop composting service for businesses, which helps if local provision isn’t good.
Hurdles aside, businesses should at least take steps to move away from packaging that will end up hanging around underground for half a millennium. Those lucky enough to have excellent local recycling and composting provision have a clear reason to make the switch. Those that don’t can switch to greener packaging anyway, while putting pressure on councils for better facilities, and shouting about it in a local publicity campaign. And that, surely, is good for business.
=== Baking Industry Summit: green focus ===
Packaging will be one of the hot topics at British Baker’s Baking Industry Summit on Corporate Social Responsibility on 27 November.
Confirmed speakers at the London event include Harriet Lamb, director of the Fairtrade Foundation, and Asda’s bakery director Huw Edwards. See [http://www.bakerysummit.co.uk] for further details. To book, contact Helen Law at firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 01293 846587.
=== Useful contacts ===
Colpac - 01525 712261 [http://www.colpac.co.uk]
Expresso packaging 2 Go - 01202 429299 [http://www.espressopackaging2go.com]
Huhtamaki - 02392 512434 [http://www.huhtamaki.com]
London Bio Packaging - 020 8969 8086 [http://www.londonbiopackaging.com]
Packaging Environmental - 020 3006 2432 [http://www.packagingenvironmental.co.uk]
Planglow - 0117 317 8600 [http://www.planglow.com]
Solo Cup Europe - 01480 459413 [http://www.soloeurope.co.uk]
Tri-Star - 0208 443 9100 [http://www.tri-star.co.uk]
Vegware - 0845 643 0406 [http://www.vegware.com]