by Joanne Moss5 minute read
When you think of food packaging, what springs to mind? Cardboard boxes, polystyrene and plastic trays, polythene wrap still predominate, both in consumer packaging and in the material the public rarely sees – the transit packaging that makes sure products arrive at the retailer intact. Much of this material can be recycled, but the waste hierarchy gives prevention top priority – so what scope is there to avoid generating transit packaging waste in the first place?
WRAP has been working with major retailers and brand manufacturers for over a decade. The voluntary Courtauld Commitment – first introduced in 2005 and now in its third phase – is claimed to have helped improve resource efficiency and reduce waste arisings in the UK grocery sector, especially through improving and light-weighting consumer-facing packaging.
In recent months, WRAP has been increasing the focus on reducing supply chain packaging – while still aiming for improvements in product protection to eliminate food waste in the food retail industry. Phase three of the Courtauld Commitment includes a target to:
“improve packaging design through the supply chain to maximise recycled content as appropriate, improve recyclability and deliver product protection to reduce food waste, while ensuring there is no increase in the carbon impact of packaging by 2015.”
Achieving these multiple goals in a cost effective way will not be straightforward – reducing packaging could reduce protection; increasing recycled content could impact on cost and even recyclability. So is there an approach that can plausibly deliver progress on all fronts?
Returnable transit packaging (RTP) consists of equipment such as plastic crates, trays, plastic pallets and bulk bins which can be used in closed loop systems, in which they are reused many times rather than being consigned to recycling or disposal immediately after use. This isn’t a new idea – for many years, fruit producers have been using durable plastic crates instead of the common cardboard alternative – but the latest generation of RTP could be a credible alternative to disposable packaging for a much wider range of businesses. As someone who works in the RTP sector, you’d expect me to bang the drum for it, but let me offer you a few facts that persuade me that RTP could be key to meeting the Courtauld 3 objectives.
Single trip packaging predominantly consists of cardboard and polystyrene boxes. It’s cheap to buy, but once used it has to be recycled or disposed of – typically incurring collection and compliance costs. Many businesses have been put off RTP by its substantially greater up-front costs – although the differential is eroded somewhat if you also factor in the disposal cost. However, I would typically expect a returnable crate to make many journeys during its lifetime, and viewed over that period my experience is that the vast majority of those who invest in RTP make a saving – typically around 25%.
Nevertheless, a large capital outlay can be off-putting. In response to this problem, the RTP sector is starting to offer arrangements under which containers are pooled or leased, rather than being bought outright. WRAP might wish to encourage further developments in this area to help smaller producers and distributers transition to RTP.
However, for this to be feasible, businesses will also need to be convinced that RTP can perform just as well as disposable alternatives, while WRAP will want to be satisfied regarding its recycled content, recyclability and carbon impact.
For users, RTP is now available that is food safe, and can be hygienically washed. Crates and pallets are typically injection moulded out of HDPE (high-density polyethylene) and PP (polypropylene). These materials produce packaging that is stronger and more rigid than disposable containers, and so provide a greater degree of protection for goods in transit. The resulting containers are stackable, and resistant to crushing. They are also resilient across a wide range of temperatures – whether in cold stores where foods are frozen or in hot climates that might be encountered in activities such as citrus fruit farming.
They can also be designed for a range of applications – perhaps including ventilation slots where they are to be used with frozen foods to allow the surrounding temperature to penetrate quickly through to the product. Plastic containers are also much more waterproof and resistant to chemicals than cardboard, while also being free from any plastic odour that might taint food. Clearly, RTP is capable of performing at least as well as disposable alternatives across a range of applications, although it is vital that each business finds the solution which works for them.
That leaves the question of the environmental credentials of RTP. HDPE and PP are both widely recycled plastics, and some manufacturers now offer RTP that has a high recycled content, in line with the goals of the Courtauld Commitment. If damaged during their lifetime, many types of RTP can be repaired to help extend their lives. Once a piece of packaging reaches the end of its useful life, packaging regulations now require that all re-usable packaging must be manufactured in such a way as to allow for it to be recovered at the end of its use, whether through recycling, composting or energy recovery. A lifecycle analysis by the Humber Institute found that switching to RTP from cardboard can reduce carbon emissions by 52%, while a switch from polystyrene yields a saving of 89%, provided that the RTP is used 260 times. With these characteristics, the use of RTP fits well with the waste prevention and reuse goals espoused in the waste hierarchy; it also helps to advance us towards a more circular economy.
While incremental changes such as light-weighting and increasing recycling of disposable packaging are to be welcomed, if we want to achieve a dramatic shift in the environmental impact of transport packaging a more fundamental change of approach is required. It is to be hoped that WRAP, retailers and producers recognise the potential of RTP to contribute to achieving the goals of the third Courtauld Commitment, by significantly reducing the environmental impact of packaging.