M&S, Plan A and a polymer for all reasons? | Profile – Kevin Vyse

Des King reports from the European Bioplastics conference in Berlin, where M&S food packaging technologist Kevin Vyse confirmed the importance of bio-based materials delivering a sustainable retail environment.

M&S has long been a fully committed proponent of the circular economy, whose principles are as deeply embedded its recently updated 2025 version of Plan ‘A’ as they were when its original iteration was rolled out 10 years ago. The imminent prospect of a commercially viable bio-based alternative to oil-derived plastic packaging will make reuse and recycle a far more sustainable proposition when applied to a naturally renewable resource. The extent to which that might inform future strategy is one of the points raised with senior technologist of the M&S food packaging team Kevin Vyse in this exclusive interview for PN.

How much focus is being placed on your packaging strategy in Plan ‘A’ 2025?

Plan ‘A’ 2025 is central to everything we do at M&S and packaging is going to be quite important to all of us for this next period of our lives. We’ve made two commitments: one is to be 100% widely recycled by 2022; and the other to have a strategy in place for the use of just one plastics polymer by 2025.

Let’s look at recyclability first. You’ve stressed that collection is the only way to successfully recycle; how is that to be achieved?

Most of the industry wants a joined up policy across the UK. Collaboration with others to bring about changes in local government recycling policy is vital, such as a single policy on collection. Meanwhile, we’re the only retailer, as far as I’m aware, that’s part of the CEFLEX project that brings together a wider group of people and interests from around Europe on a quarterly basis to discuss how we’re going to make flexible films fully recyclable. Over 70% of the materials in use in the flexibles sector can be technically recycled right now if there was a facility for it. The other 30% is multi-layers; we’re going to have to work hard on what comes next with those.

You’re aiming to rely upon the use of a single polymer by 2025. Is that realistic – and if so, which one is it going to be?

If you look at the successful rates for collection of metal, glass and board it’s quite clear that consumers understand what goes into what bin. Why not plastic? What is stopping us using a single plastic for all the materials we’ve got? M&S Food has already got down to three, so it’s not far off.

There are some exciting developments in the pipe-line that will perform better than PET; PEF (polyethylene-furanoate) being one of them. We know that by 2022 there will be two pilot plants running PEF. We’re looking at all these options. Meanwhile, there are new bio-based materials being developed continuously, so we’re keeping an open mind on this.

Could PEF also be used for flexibles too?

That’s still to be explored. We have fairly good confidence that it can be made into film but we’ve not yet done the trials. It’s probable this will happen in the next 18 months.

Whilst PEF at least is still a thought rather than a fact, how much provision is there for the single-use polymer to be bio-based?

We’ve set a goal to be a zero-waste business across all that we do – our operation, our supply chains and of course when our customers come to remove packaging and use our products. This includes designing packaging that underpins the creation of a circular economy; that’s why we’re looking seriously at how we can use bio-based sourced feedstock with this programme. How much fossil and how much organic materials we use in combination we will have to see. We know this will take a number of years and would expect that in this time a lot of us will then be using biopolymers as a matter of course.

I’m sensing that circularity is more important than sourcing.

Absolutely; circular design is at the core of this. If you take that as your working principle, that you’re designing for sustainability, then you’re automatically going to be asking lots of questions about the source materials. And if you do ask those questions honestly, then you’re going to be driven towards a bio source.

Can you clarify your position with regard to biodegradable plastics?

We are reluctant to engage in biodegradability because of the confusion there is with the consumer on how and what to do with it; also because the current infrastructure won’t accept it easily. Biodegradability has a place, but it needs to be a closed system – such as the London Olympics, for example, where it was all collected and safely kept separate from the traditional recycling system.

Where you go, others tend to follow. When they do so, isn’t there a danger of that eroding your point of difference?

I don’t think that in this particular case eroding any point of difference is of primary concern. We want to be the first to do it if we can – but I think it’s important for us all to move forward in this direction. Collaboration is going to be watchword as we go from here. It’s already started to happen in some big areas. The point of difference ultimately comes through the brand that you’ve created and the service that you deliver.