Companies are being challenged to find packaging solutions that preserve food without causing plastic waste pollution. And they are increasingly seeking help from innovators to help them solve this ‘plastics conundrum.’
Harrowing images of marine life snared in plastic waste have sparked backlash against conventional single-use packaging. Last week, the European Parliament voted to ban a range of single-use plastics by 2021. Meanwhile, consumers have been registering dissatisfaction with actions ranging from petitions to guerrilla-style, return-the-plastic ‘flashmobs’ at supermarket. It’s clear: the food industry is under pressure to find different ways of packaging food or to ditch plastic altogether.
While there may be unintended side effects if plastic packaging is fully replaced by other materials, consumers are demanding change. In a recent survey released in the UK by waste management company Veolia, some 89 percent of respondents said they think packaging should change so it is easier to recycle.
Due to its durability and flexibility, plastic packaging is a particularly effective material for reducing food waste and extending the shelf life of perishable products. But even if it is recyclable, rates of doing so are low. Too often, plastic finds its way into landfills, incinerators or, worse, the sea.
“Our packaging breaks down into water, CO2 and organic matter”- Daphna Nissenbaum, TIPA-Corp
The ‘bioplastic’ alternative
It’s this conundrum that packaging innovators such as TIPA-Corp are working to solve. They are among a range of companies bringing packaging products to market that offer similar properties to plastics but are fully compostable at their end of life.
Fresh from pitching at the FoodBytes! event in London, TIPA-Corp’s CEO and co-founder Daphna Nissenbaum outlined her vision for packaging.
“We founded TIPA-Corp primarily to develop a flexible solution that could avoid the damage caused by single-use plastic,” she says. “The idea was to produce packaging that, at the end of its life, could be integrated in the organic waste stream and decompose – much like an orange peel, for example.”
Having first launched its innovative bioplastic in 2015, TIPA-Corp now offers a range of compostable packaging for foods such as grains, pasta, cereals, coffee and baked goods. It has also recently developed solutions for high fat content foodstuffs and is continually responding to new and challenging customer requests for different applications.
“All our film and laminate packaging breaks down into water, carbon dioxide and organic matter, which acts as a natural soil nutrient,” adds Nissenbaum. “And it does so in industrial or home composters.”
“Compostable packaging is no longer a niche market”- Daphna Nissenbaum, TIPA-Corp
Alternatives go mainstream
At the outset, bio-based plastics – plastics “wholly or partly derived from biomass, such as plants, trees or animals” – had to battle scepticism and perceptions that they were of inferior quality or only suitable for low-grade applications such as trash or shopping bags.
Indeed, bioplastic is not always a suitable alternative depending on the demands of the product being packed. But by demonstrating their products’ effectiveness and adaptability in real-world contexts, TIPA-Corp has succeeded in signing up a range of customers, including Snact in the UK, EkoPlaza in the Netherlands and international fashion brands Stella McCartney and Mara Hoffman.
“Compostable packaging is no longer a niche market,” says Nissenbaum. “Demand is growing not only because it’s a viable sustainable solution, but also because we have demonstrated how versatile it is as a solution in the food industry and elsewhere.
“We’re now aiming to build on that by scaling up, expanding geographically and developing newer generations of packaging technology.”
New players like TIPA-Corp are not alone. Leading traditional plastic packaging manufacturers around the world are working to ensure their packaging is easier to recycle after use, and also that it is made with a higher proportion of recycled materials. For example, it is now possible to produce a PET water bottle from 100 percent recycled PET. And manufacturers are finding the market for more ‘circular’ packaging is growing.
At EkoPlaza in the Netherlands, house-brand grains are sold in ‘plastic-free’ packaging.
A farewell to plastics: the retail approach
Earlier this year, Dutch supermarket and TIPA-Corp customer EkoPlaza deployed bioplastic packaging on what was celebrated in the media as the world’s first ‘plastic-free aisle.’ The gesture showed not only how high addressing the plastic issue is on food retailers’ agendas but also the market potential of alternative solutions.
Going one step further, the UK frozen food supermarket chain Iceland has committed to phasing out plastic packaging altogether on its own-branded products by 2023.
As well as making it easier for customers to recycle plastic packaging, it has introduced a paper band for bunches of bananas that will replace 10 million plastic bags every year. Additionally, the chain is switching strawberries, mushrooms and grapes from plastic to paper punnets that it claims also extend shelf-life and therefore reduce food waste.
“The onus is on retailers to take a stand and deliver change”- Richard Walker, Iceland
Iceland’s Managing Director Richard Walker says: “The onus is on retailers, as leading contributors to plastic packaging waste, to take a stand and deliver meaningful change. Other supermarkets, and the retail industry as a whole, should follow suit and offer similar commitments during 2018.”
“There really is no excuse any more for excessive packaging that creates needless waste and damages our environment. The technologies and practicalities to create less environmentally harmful alternatives exist, and so Iceland is putting a stake in the ground.”
Recyclable solutions – and barriers
Other retailers such as Lidl and Aldi have announced changes in their approach to traditional plastic packaging too, working towards sourcing more recycled, recyclable or alternative materials for their products. But unilateral action is only likely to have a limited effect. Tackling a global issue such as plastic pollution will require a more coordinated, international approach.
“One of the key issues is infrastructure,” says Rabobank’s Global Strategist, F&A Supply Chains Susan Hansen. “Some of the most polluting areas such as Asia and Africa lack the basic means of collection, sorting and recycling. And even where such infrastructure does exist, like in Western Europe, consumer behavior is a major factor inhibiting higher recycling rates of plastic packaging.”
A circular economy in plastics
That’s why many businesses are signing on to the Plastics Pact, a network of national and regional initiatives coordinated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation aimed at creating a shared vision for a circular economy in plastics.
The first pact was announced in the UK in April 2018, in partnership with the UK sustainability organization WRAP.
Speaking at the launch of the UK Plastics Pact, CEO Marcus Gover commented: “We have an opportunity to rethink and reshape the future of plastic so we retain its value and curtail the damage plastic waste wreaks on our planet. This requires a wholesale transformation of the system and can only be achieved by bringing together all links in the chain under a shared commitment to act.”
Signatories to the pact have committed to achieving ambitious targets by 2025, including eliminating unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through redesign and innovation and ensuring all plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable. And with the new EU Parliament vote to eliminate certain single-use plastics, an even broader group of retailers and manufacturers will also need to get on board.
Companies such as TIPA-Corp are likely to play an increasingly significant role in helping retailers and food and beverage producers achieve these goals.