As we continue to operate in the shadow of the infamous Blue Planet II series, the anti-plastic debate rages on. While the outrage still exists, the frantic bubble of the immediate post-documentary uproar has somewhat calmed, bringing some much-needed educated conversation. However, in the midst of the hue and cry, it is clearly evident the consumer is not convinced about the need for any plastics today, especially in packaging.
Consumer education is a hot topic in the packaging sector right now and it couldn’t be more applicable to the plastics debate. The current lack of education on the consumer’s behalf has the potential to be detrimental to brands as the customer continues to avoid products for the simple fact they contain the ubiquitous material. This is simply down to a lack of knowledge – do they understand why plastic often needs to be used?
It is vital that the consumer understands plastic packaging serves a number of important purposes – it enables food to stay fresher for longer, it makes food visually appealing to consumers and it protects the product from the rigours of the supply chain. Its very development and selection is because it fulfils these requirements so well compared with many other materials available.
Major companies are now turning to alternative materials for their products to respond to the consumer outcry. For example, McDonald’s recently removed all plastic straws from its UK stores and replaced them with paper ones, Morrisons vowed to return to using paper carrier bags, replacing its current plastic bags for life and Iceland has committed to plastic free isles. However, the Environment Agency for example has found that some of the proposed paper alternatives have a greater impact on the planet than the original plastic versions. So why are consumers so keen on completely removing plastic from society?
Zero Waste Scotland recently found that the carbon footprint of food is three times higher than that of plastic waste, emitting around 1.9 million tonnes of MtCO2e each year in Scotland alone. This is a result of the methane which is produced by food waste when it begins to degrade in landfill. From this we can see that it is essential that the industry continues to focus on waste reductions in the supply chain from farm to fork but also encourage the consumer to be more diligent when doing the weekly shop and not over-purchasing as well as in the handling of leftover food. Once they begin to understand the impact last night’s lasagne can have on the environment, they may then begin to appreciate the real impact of waste – simply put, the environmental benefits of plastic packaging can outweigh the negatives.
Innovation is key
Currently, the overwhelming proposal from consumer lobby groups seems to be to remove plastic completely from packaging and society but this would be detrimental to a wide range of products taking into account the demands of today’s global food supply chain and importantly, consumer health and safety. For example, products such as red and white meat require plastic packaging with a high barrier performance to keep it fresh in what can be an extended supply chain, free of contaminants and safe for consumption; this is much easier to achieve with plastic laminates in modified atmosphere or vacuum skin packaging, rather than utilising biopolymer or paper based substrates.
However, if we are to reduce the industry’s use of plastic packaging, there are viable solutions already out there in the market. For example, Parkside has created a range of compostable packaging designs under its Park2NatureTM brand, which can be utilised for a wide range of product categories. While arguing that biodegradable and compostable packaging is not finding its way into organic waste recycling facilities in the UK today, Parkside has uniquely developed a home compostable range of materials, with full accreditation, to resolve this challenge.
The compostable packaging range is comprised of innovative multilayer laminates sourced from sustainable sources and provides excellent oxygen, aroma and moisture barriers that extend the shelf life of the product, while maintaining optimum flavour. The packs are fully home compostable and designed to break down entirely within 26 weeks, gaining accreditation from TUV (formerly Vincotte). The packs are also rigorously tested for eco-toxicity and a host of other criteria against EN 13432. They have also been tested and proven to fully break down in seawater.
Selling the plastic story
The industry has to take some level of responsibility for educating the consumer and must ensure its message reaches multiple generations. In the modern smart device-dominated world, social media is a highly-effective method of talking to millennials and younger consumers. Brands can also utilise their websites by uploading useful blogs, articles and videos to provide the consumer with vital new information and knowledge, rather than perhaps the one sided view presented by the media today. Trade shows, interviews, seminars and webinars also provide great platforms for inspiring conversations around the important packaging and plastic topic.
While there is a willingness within the packaging industry to minimise our reliance on plastic, it is also vital we educate the consumer on its importance in achieving optimum packaging performance and functionality. The plastic packaging ‘problem’ is about much more than simply taking it off the supermarket shelves; the debate encompasses human behaviour, government policy on recycling and infrastructure and carefully weighing up the pros and cons of one substrate against another depending on application.