Which country in Europe would you think has the highest per capita creation of municipal waste? The answer might surprise you. It’s Denmark, whose citizens produce 777 kilos of waste per person each year, compared to the European average of 480 kilos. Another Scandinavian country, Norway, comes in second place. Since Scandinavia is so strongly associated with all things organic and sustainable, this might seem counterintuitive. But if this Nordic anomaly tells us anything about the bewilderingly complex business of packaging, it is to expect the unexpected.

Navigating the sustainable packaging minefield

A good example is the case of UK supermarket Morrison’s decision to remove plastic wrapping from cucumbers, under growing pressure from consumers and the media. Everyone, it seems, agrees that the shrink-wrapped cucumber is a text-book example of excessive packaging. But when, 18 months later, Morrison’s examined the effect of unwrapping its cucumbers, it discovered that it had led to a third more food waste.

The direct link between food waste and packaging is what complicates all decision-making in this area. Research by the charity WRAP shows that consumers often express concern about excessive packaging, but have limited awareness of packaging’s role in preserving food. The reality is that reducing packaging and cutting food waste are now judged equally important priorities.

Much of the current focus on packaging innovation is in developing plastic alternatives, especially in the area of biodegradable and compostable materials. As a result, we have seen many large retailers switch to compostable bags. But research published by the University of Plymouth shows that, here too, the picture is complicated. The researchers showed that biodegradable carrier bags remained fully intact (and functional!) three years after being submerged in seawater or buried in soil. Many ‘compostable’ bags only biodegrade in industrial composting facilities – and far too few ever reach them. At the same time, plastic alternatives are known to contaminate conventional recycling facilities.

One of the hottest trends in food retail is packaging-free

So, questions over the usefulness of bioplastics continue. Is growing plants for bioplastic a sensible use of resources (think of the need to divert land from food use), for example? What about the pollution from additional use of fertilizers and pesticides? A growing number of brands, however, now proudly proclaim themselves plastic-free. London-based organic cereals pioneer Alara Wholefoods, for example, has switched to a 100% ‘garden compostable’ material made from plant-fibers, and international organic produce distributor Eosta has also moved “decisively to entirely compostable bioplastics”.

Plastic reduction is another key strategy. Here, organic yoghurt producer Yeo Valley was an early innovator, developing cartons with thinner, lighter plastic walls, strengthened with a tear-off layer of recyclable card. The commercial opportunities for innovation in this area are quickly evolving too. Take the Swedish eco-packaging specialist Ecolean, which earlier this year won a major contract to supply its super-lightweight pouches to Chinese drinks giant SQZ.

Meanwhile, there is a growing opportunity to use packaging to communicate brand values, and one of the hottest trends in food retail is packaging-free. In the 1970s and 1980s bulk ingredients bins were a staple feature of almost every health food store. Now they are making a comeback – and not just in smaller independents. Major supermarket chains are also trialing packaging-free zones. UK supermarket Waitrose recently unveiled its ‘Unpacked’ refill station, while Marks & Spencer claimed a supermarket ‘first’ by offering a reusable container incentive at its food-to-go areas.

Specialist zero-waste stores are also opening – Unverpact in Germany, Unpackaged in London and Italian franchise Negozio Leggero among them. The real test for this bold and uncompromising model –in these stores no products at all are packaged– will be whether consumers see it a practical proposition. Sadly, one zero-waste pioneer, Austin, Texas-based Ingredients recently folded. Its owners concluded (like Kermit), “it’s hard being green”.

Author: Jim Manson, Editor-in-Chief, Natural Products Global | www.naturalproductsglobal.com

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