A packed audience gathered at the NEC in Birmingham on Wednesday (28 February) to hear about the road ahead for retailers on packaging in the face of increasing Government and consumer pressure.

It was the January release of the Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan – which pledged to eliminate all “avoidable” plastics waste by 2042 – that triggered a snowball of plastics pledges from businesses across the UK’s major sectors.

In the supermarket space, chains including Waitrose, Morrisons and Asda have taken it in turn to announce respective promises to slash the amount of single-use plastics they use.

But it was frozen-food giant Iceland’s ambitious pledge to remove all packaging from its own brand products by 2023 that sent arguably the biggest shockwaves through the industry. At the time, Iceland’s managing director Richard Walker called on other supermarkets to follow suit, stressing there was “no excuse” for retailers not to deliver meaningful change.

The pursuit of plastics-free packaging is now being coordinated principally by Iceland’s own label & packaging manager, Ian Schofield.

During a candid discussion at last week’s Packaging Innovation event, Schofield admitted that mistakes would likely be made along the way, even possibly at the expense of customer satisfaction. He stressed vehemently that, while he and his company would never compromise food safety, risks in packaging innovation would be necessary to ensure that Iceland made good on its promise.

“There will be things that we will compromise on that the customer will not like,” Schofield said. “They may not like our plastic trays for ready meals, for example. We may have to come up with something else very quickly… We may change soup from a plastic pot to a board pot, and they may not like it.

“There will be lots of things that will not work first time. That is Iceland… that is retail… that is coming up with ideas… that is failure, and recovering quickly, and getting on to the next. We will never compromise on food safety, but you have got to make mistakes. Otherwise, how do you learn?”

‘Feet to the fire’

The commitment may have dominated the newspaper headlines in recent months, but Iceland is by no means a standalone figure in the retail war on plastics packaging.

As part of its renowned Plan A programme, M&S has pledged to make all own-brand packaging “widely recyclable” by 2022. It is also planning to develop one recyclable, plastic polymer for use across all its plastic packaging. M&S often takes an innovative approach to packaging design. For instance, it has slashed the amount of packaging used for its popular snacks such as crisps and popcorn by reducing the pocket of air at the top of the bag.

M&S’s senior packaging technologist and circular economy lead Kevin Vyse hailed his rival’s commitment as a “fantastic” move that has “held our feet to the fire” by forcing the rest of the industry to ask critical questions about their own approaches. Asked by an audience member why a similar pledge had not yet been made by his own company, Vyse highlighted the highly complex nature of the modern-day packaging supply chain.

Vyse said: “The major thing that we have got now in the developed world is a very integrated, just-in-time supply chain system.

“And, as Ian [Schofield] will find – and I am sure he will admit – moving that whole supply chain system is a very incongruous, difficult animal. If we are not careful, we can move something very fast and that can give us all sorts of unintended consequences.

“If you look at some of the ‘dotcom’ businesses, they have built a one-size-fits-all model, and they are now consuming vast amounts of materials, so they have had to go back and look at that.”

The right message

To improve product design harmonisation within the supply chain, retailers will need a helping hand from policymakers and waste management experts. That was the view of Iain Ferguson, environment manager of Co-op, which has put in place a long-term ambition for 100% of its product packaging to be recyclable, with an immediate target of 80% by 2020 already in place.

During last week’s debate, Ferguson suggested that market drivers are required to encourage producers to design easily recyclable packaging. He also called for a better alignment of messages to consumers on recycling.

“We’ve still got work to do on material selection and combinations, but we’ve got to work together to get the messaging right for customers and residents,” Ferguson said. “Communication and discussion along the waste value chain is essential.”

British firms could do worse than follow the lead of thieir continental neighbours. Last week, Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza announced that it would debut the world’s first plastics aisle, which will contain more than 700 plastic-free products. The aisle will be used to test out new composable bio-materials.

Iceland’s Schofield confirmed that the retailer had been working closely with Ekoplaza, and lamented the fact that a parallel compostable route isn’t currently available on a domestic level. Industry leaders have long-bemoaned a lack of specialist waste management facilities to dispose of biodegradable items in the UK.

And then there is the question of whether removing plastics entirely from packaging is even desirable. While Schofield beat the ‘zero plastics’ drum throughout the discussion, most of the panel agreed that plastic can continue to play a role in some capacity. One such area is food waste. Due to plastic’s unique protective qualities, the material keeps food fresher for longer and reduces food waste as a result.

“Some NGOs ask us to reduce food waste and some ask us to reduce packaging – so its competing demands,” Co-op’s Ferguson explained.

Bottled up

While the retail sector can consider itself a ‘leader’ in the packaging waste agenda, progress is seemingly slower in the manufacturing sector – particularly when it comes to products like plastic bottles.

Nevertheless, some positive steps have been taken. For instance, Evian’s owner Danone recently teamed up with the bottled water division of the Nestlé Group and a Californian start-up company to launch a new alliance aimed at commercialising 100% bio-based plastic bottles. And, in January, Coca-Cola launched a new global plan to address its plastics impact. The world’s largest soft drinks firm has introduced a number of new measures, including an aim to collect one bottle or can for everyone it sells, in a bid to recycle the equivalent of all of its packaging by 2030.

Speaking at last week’s event, Coca-Cola European Partners’ (CCEP) head of sustainability Nick Brown commented on the “the need to look at innovation for packaging sustainability”. Brown pointed towards his company’s collaboration with University of Reading to hand out micro-chipped refillable drinks bottles to students to support a more sustainable packaging system on campus.

CCEP has not been afraid to enter the political debate on issues around packaging. Its European branch has given its backing to the notion of plastic bottle deposit schemes, in addition to an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme. Brown suggested that “compromises” were necessary at both a producer and consumer level to push the agenda forward.

“A compromise from industry is needed to contribute more to the end-of-life costs of the packaging it puts on the market through the producer responsibility scheme,” he said.

“When you get to consumers and lifestyles, it is a slightly different question: are we going to ask consumers to compromise and do things slightly differently at the end-of-life? That’s what a deposit return scheme is asking people to do with a financial incentive.”

Iain Ferguson at edie Live 2018

Co-op’s environment manager Iain Ferguson will appear on the Resource Efficiency theatre at edie Live to discuss the need for innovation and collaboration to catalyse change across the packaging supply chain to drive sustainability.

Running between 22 – 23 May 2018, edie Live plans to show delegates how they can achieve their Mission Possible. Through the lens of energy, resources, the built environment, mobility and business leadership an array of expert speakers will be on hand to inspire delegates to achieve a sustainable future. For more information click here.

George Ogleby

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