We are all aware of the change our industry is facing; an evolution – a dormant seed germinated by the BBC’s Sir David Attenborough Blue Planet II series that has focused the eyes of the world on the plastic waste polluting our oceans – and the world is demanding action.
One trend driven by this demand is the so-called ‘Plastic-Free Aisle’, the first of which was opened by Dutch supermarket Ekoplaza in March. Following this successful launch, Ekoplaza, will now roll out the plastic-free aisle concept to a further 74 stores this month; whilst expanding the plastic-free range from 700 to 1,000 plus skus.
It is clear that the term ‘Plastic-Free’ has been coined with the lay-person and consumer in mind. As packaging technologists we could certainly argue the technicalities of this phrasing, however, let’s use the qualifying requirements of Ekoplaza as an initial benchmark that; “products must be made of innovative, certified compostable, biomaterials” and so it is to these types of products I refer.
It is my view that the plastic-free aisle will not be the downfall of the plastics, packaging or retail industries. In fact, it holds immense untapped potential. A designated plastic-free aisle, with a clear set of criteria that everyone can adhere to and at equal cost impact, would help ease consumer confusion and feed the growing demand for next generation packaging. It also creates a hugely valuable commercial and developmental opportunity for innovative bio-packaging solutions, without creating any downsides in terms of additional waste. A greater uptake of such materials allows for capacity increases on a manageable scale – no one wants a revolution that industry cannot fulfil and that might have negative consequences on food production and waste.
With capacity comes economy of scale, bringing cost, life-cycle and efficiency benefits that will encourage new entrants into the field. With increased sales comes increased R&D activity; driving forward emerging sustainable technologies. Experience in countries like Italy and France, where legislation already favours bio-materials in certain product categories, is that raw material manufacture has moved more locally (creating new jobs) and the processing of these materials can still be carried out by the same companies (preserving jobs) as, critically, most biomaterials can be converted in exactly the same way as conventional plastics. Therefore, switching to a biomaterial should not have a negative impact on packaging manufacturers, while those who embrace the option for plastic-free packs such as organically recyclable compostable packs, as well as mechanically recyclable products, are inevitably going to be the winners as demand continues to grow.
There is a misconception that ‘plastic-free’ packaging would increase food waste. However, there are a number of biomaterials, including renewable and compostable NatureFlex films, which have excellent barrier properties that protect the product integrity without compromising the shelf life of dry foods. In fact, in some cases such as fruit and vegetables, biomaterials actually offer enhanced shelf-life by naturally allowing excess condensation to escape from the pack.
Another concern over the plastic-free aisle is that ‘plastic-free’ packaging could contaminate the recycling schemes. The reality is that plastic film recycling (where compostables are most present) represents a tiny fraction of plastics recycling, consisting mainly of plastic films coming from industrial use. Post-consumer plastic film recycling in the UK is virtually zero, due to the use of mixed materials, contamination by inks, adhesives and food-waste and lack of value for such poor quality recyclate. Indeed, using compostable films will create an increase in recycling through the composting route.
Certified biodegradable and compostable packaging material (i.e. materials certified to the BS EN13432 standard) will break down in composting conditions to produce carbon dioxide, water and biomass. This is the key goal of compostable packaging – to follow the organic waste diversion routes open to garden and food-waste as applicable, thereby facilitating the maximum organic recovery and recycling of such waste residues. In some countries, such as the Netherlands, they have an infrastructure that allows for compostable packaging to be collected together with organic waste, which is an ideal solution
And finally, that old chestnut that compostable packaging produces methane in landfill; not so…As the expert laboratory on Biodegradation, OWS of Belgium explains: “Most municipal solid waste has a moisture content of 15-40%, with 25% as typical. Sanitary landfills are managed to keep humidity as low as possible in order not to generate leachate. Under these conditions biodegradation is not favoured, as the water content is limited. Typically only ‘juicy’ organic waste (food scraps such as fruit waste, vegetable, grass from lawn etc.) contain enough water to self-sustain an anaerobic biodegradation process, while dry organic material (paper, lignocellulosic materials, etc.) can only start degradation when water is added to the mass.” In short any such materials that find their way into landfill will remain inert.
It is important that we, as an experienced industry, continue to evolve with consumer demand and recognize the very real expectation that we will ‘do the right thing’. With the support of an evolved waste infrastructure we can outperform the expectations of demand and show what we are truly capable of. There is room for us all, let’s embrace this change and take control of it.
Andy Sweetman is sales and marketing manager at Futamura EMEA, and chairman of the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA)