As quick as public outrage at plastic might have started, overhauling its use across food and drink will take a lot of time, money and innovation. So, where is change already underway? And how might some iconic brands look in a plastic-free future? 

Plastic is public enemy number one. From viral petitions to ban plastic straws in coffee shops, to outrage at the revelation that plastic is lurking in our teabags, the ‘plastic problem’ has been plastered all over the media nearly every day since the landmark documentary Blue Planet II first aired. As a result, a survey by technology consultants Thoughtworks this month found 62% of consumers are now concerned with reducing plastic packaging and using recyclable materials. That puts plastic above price (57%) on shoppers’ list of priorities. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, food and drink giants are bearing much of the brunt of this new public crusade.

Take Walkers. The snack brand faced a boycott earlier this year when, instead of sand crunching between toes on a Cornish beach, strollers uncovered a 30-year-old bag of crisps underfoot, decades after it was discarded. It wasn’t the first crisps brand with seriously persistent packaging. A Golden Wonder bag reportedly survived five decades on a Norfolk beach, but PepsiCo is the biggest name on the block.

Its Leicester factory produces 11 million crisp bags a day, using packaging made from polypropylene and a thin layer of aluminium that cannot be separated for recycling. And campaigners say an extra 28 billion of these bags will be littered across the UK before Walkers reaches its current sustainability target to find an alternative by 2025.

As a result, the discovery of that discarded crisp packet sparked outrage, more than 300,000 people signing a petition arguing that Walker’s pledge simply wasn’t good enough.

But how easy is it to find an environmentally friendly alternative for the crisp bag? After all, Walkers has considered substitutes in the past, including a bag aptly made from recycled potato peelings, and is now trialling compostable and biodegradable materials. Faced with a similar challenge on its own label lines, M&S simply reduced the air pocket at the top of its bags, cutting the amount of packaging used for its snacks by 20% in a move dubbed ‘Project Thin Air’. And the Co-op is working on a sustainable crisp bag too, one that will not compromise the product’s 18-week shelf life. But it could be a while before we see this on shelves. As the retailer’s environment manager Iain Ferguson admits it’s “a very tricky piece of packaging”.

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So, where are retailers already making progress to ditch single-use plastic? Which categories are racing ahead? And where are the biggest opportunities?

We challenged media agency Starcom to come up with their own ideas, four of which you can view here, including its own take on how Walkers crisp bags could appear in the future. But the clock is ticking. The government is expected to impose a ‘plastic tax’ on problem packaging, such as crisp packets, this autumn. The new measures, dubbed the ‘latte levy’, could also see charges introduced on disposable coffee cups and difficult-to-recycle plastics, in a move similar to the 5p carrier bag charge introduced in 2015. The number of plastic bags given out by retailers has dropped by a whopping 86% since the charge was introduced in 2015, taking nine million plastic bags out of circulation. And Theresa May is set to double the charge to 10p following this success as the government strives to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

But this is a drop in the ocean. A distressing report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation warns there could be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050 as around eight million tonnes of plastic pollution is dumped in the oceans every year. It’s not surprising then that since the final episode of Blue Planet II aired in late 2017 the drive for sustainability has been non-stop. Supermarkets are racing to have the first plastic-free own-label packaging and brands are tumbling over themselves to find innovative alternatives.

More than 60 businesses including the big four have now signed up to Wrap’s UK Plastics Pact, an agreement to cut back on plastic use in store and across the supply chain by 2025. Peter Skelton, the charity’s strategic partnerships manager, says the pact has experienced huge momentum since it launched in April, with “great engagement” from brands and retailers, including Unilever. Yvette Edwards, communications and sustainable business director, says the fmcg giant welcomes the pact “as a vehicle to drive action and accountability, and as a way of collaborating with others to keep plastic in the economy and out of the natural environment.”

Balancing concerns

But frozen food specialist Iceland is setting its own agenda, shunning the pact in favour of its own pledge in January to remove all plastic packaging from its own-label products within five years. The announcement sparked a chain reaction among the mults and a barrage of similar statements followed from those eager to be seen as the most sustainable supermarket. Many are turning their attention towards fresh produce in the first instance, says Skelton. 

This month, Iceland’s bananas became the first product in any major UK supermarket to bear the Plastic Free Trust Mark, launched by grassroots organisation A Plastic Planet last year. Skelton warns there is a fine balance between reducing plastic and not increasing food waste in these categories though.

Morrisons faced a backlash after ditching its plastic sleeves from British-grown cucumbers, for instance when the Cucumber Growers’ Association said the shrink wrap was key to preventing the vegetable becoming damaged or dehydrated. But while Morrisons admits the cucumbers’ shelf life will be reduced by two days, it says its decision will eradicate 16 million plastic sleeves each year. And though cucumbers might have been a controversial starting point, it’s not the only move Morrisons has up its sleeve.

The supermarket is allowing customers to bring in their own reusable tubs to its meat and fish counters, rewarding them with loyalty points when they do so, and has brought back brown paper bags for consumers to use for fruit & veg. Independent retailer Booths is also ditching plastic produce bags in favour of compostable net versions and is looking to sell the majority of its fresh produce loose.

Crucially though this need to balance competing concerns over food waste has meant not removing packaging entirely but a drive to finding environmentally-friendly alternatives, particularly when it comes to some of the biggest plastic offenders out there.

One of those is black plastic, which many of the mults have pledged to ditch from their shelves. The packaging is rarely detected by machines at recycling plants, and it’s estimated around 1.3 billion black plastic trays are burnt or sent to landfill each year as a result.

“Retailers are moving away from black plastic trays where they’re not needed and instead moving towards more natural and clear polymers, which are actually the same plastic but are more economically viable to recycle,” says Skelton.

Aldi has already moved 1,000 tonnes of its plastic packaging to “more easily recyclable materials”, says Fritz Walleczek, managing director of corporate responsibility. “Our packaging taskforce is continuously trialling new initiatives to reduce the amount of waste of any sort that goes to landfill, such as by using clear trays on fresh produce.”

Asda has also swapped to clear recyclable trays on a selection of its fruit & veg, while Waitrose is now using trays made from a mix of tomato vine leaves and recycled cardboard for its Duchy cherry tomatoes. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and M&S are meanwhile collaborating with waste management company Viridor to find a solution for black plastic that will enable it be detected at recycling plants.

But The Collective might have beaten them all to the most innovative solution. From October, the black lids of its 450g yoghurt tubs will have a new green pigment that will allow the plastic to be picked up at recycling plants but won’t compromise the look of the black lids, which are part of the brand’s identity.

Co-founder Amelia Harvey says the dairy category is starting to take note of the impact of single-use plastic and The Collective is at the forefront of this. Not only has the brand altered the lids on its 450g tubs, it has also removed the lids and spoons from its 150g pots, which it says will save 35 tonnes of plastic each year.

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It’s one of many SMEs taking the lead. For example, where crisp giant Walkers has struggled, a multitude of smaller snack brands are discovering alternatives. “There are solutions across most categories, but not all manufacturers are adopting them yet,” says Olivia Keen of Cornish artisan confectioner Buttermilk, which recently launched a new snack bar in a compostable cellulose wrapper. “The price is prohibitive as non-plastic is far more expensive and currently there are limited options. It takes time and investment to move to sustainable packaging so we are finding that it’s actually a lot of the smaller brands and new products to market that are adopting them first.”

So while chocolate heavyweights Mars and Nestlé have committed to using reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025, ethical chocolate brand Divine is already using paper wrappers that are FSC certified and recyclable. And Snact, which creates fruit snacks made from food waste, uses compostable packaging produced by Israel-based company TIPA.

Overhauling flexible packaging

“Snacks is a category where alternatives will grow fast because this type of packaging is a real problem,” says Daphna Nissenbaum, CEO of TIPA. “The challenge is to bring the same quality of conventional plastic to different materials, otherwise the brand will not be able to replace their existing packaging. We have developed a solution that does this and is 100% compostable.”

It’s not the only one. Yorkshire-based Parkside Flexibles has collaborated with sports nutrition startup Tribe to create what they claim is the first energy bar with a compostable wrapper in the UK. The films, said to decompose within 26 weeks in a compost heap, are made from compostable grade paper, cellulose from eucalyptus trees and a micro-thin layer of aluminium.

As to the big boys, while confectionery giant Mondelez might not be adopting these plastic alternatives (yet), the Cadbury’s owner has committed to switching its flexible packaging where possible from multi-material laminates, to single materials that can be recycled. And the global snacks company says it has already cut back on 53,500 tonnes of packaging since 2013, with a target of eliminating 65,000 tonnes in total by 2020.

It’s not just snacks where flexible packaging is being overhauled, either. Organic muesli manufacturer Alara Wholefoods uses a plant-based film for the inner bag of its products, which it says is completely compostable. And Cheshire-based bakery Roberts has altered the flexible packaging of its three-strong bloomer range, with its packaging technologist Will Harrop saying that “by swapping the plastic window to polyethylene terephthalate (PET) we have made the move to 100% recyclable”.

Harrop admits from its own experience that “it is a challenge for big organisations to turn to more sustainable solutions quickly”. But Ellie Harrison, procurement and sustainability manager at plant-based meal delivery service Allplants, says “with the biggest challenges come the biggest opportunities,” one of which is in ready meal packaging.

“Ready meals are typically required to withstand extreme variations in temperature from freezer to oven. This puts a huge amount of pressure on the packaging,” Harrison explains. “Until recently, plastic was believed to be the only material able to withstand such conditions. But ready meal packaging is ripe for disruption.”

Switching to paper-based trays on two of its ready meals kicked off Iceland’s pledge to scrap plastic and managing director Richard Walker says this is set to continue. “We are on track to remove black plastic trays from a high proportion of our own-label frozen meal range by the end of 2018, replacing it with a mixture of paper-based trays for microwaveable products and fully recyclable aluminium trays for those lines that are typically cooked in a conventional oven.”

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Waitrose also trialled wood and fibre-based trays on two of its ready meal lines earlier in the year as part of its efforts to remove black plastic from its own-brand range by the end of 2019. And meat alternative brand Quorn has switched to clear or opaque plastic trays on all its ready meals, a move it says will prevent 297 tonnes of black plastic ending up in landfill or being burnt.

But Rahul Parekh, founder of gourmet meal delivery service EatFirst, says ready meals still have a lot of catching up to do. “You just have to look at the supermarket shelves to see ready meals are waves behind. Almost every one you see is full of plastic because it’s cheap, holds saucy food easily and is microwave and oven safe. Therefore, most ready meal companies aren’t willing or able to move away from plastic.”

Which is a shame, considering how big the market is, says Parekh. “The global ready meal market is worth £1.06bn per annum and over 60% of meals at home for the average household are consumed ready in the UK alone. Given that the majority of ready meal packaging is plastic, which households subsequently throw away, there is a huge opportunity here for companies and individuals to make a difference to the environment.”

EatFirst is already using bagasse for its meal containers, a bio-waste of sugar production that is both recyclable and compostable. But Harrison of Allplants found using a bagasse tray “too porous” and is now looking into carton boards with biodegradable lining barriers rather than PET. However, she admits these alternatives are far more expensive than their plastic counterparts. “Alternatives to single-use virgin plastic can be up to 400% more expensive. But it’s just something to be accepted for now and as the movement inevitably continues to grow, we will all benefit from the economies of scale.”

That said, there is an alternative to plastic that has been around for decades. And while it might not be microwave safe, it is a material soft drink manufacturers could latch onto, says Ana Neale, marketing and strategic planning director for Ball Beverage Packaging Europe. “Every day in the press there is an announcement of innovation funds needed to develop viable alternatives that will be available in 2025 or later. But there is a viable alternative now. It’s the aluminium can.”

Canned drinks sales grew 5% for the year to June 2018, according to Nielsen data, a surge driven by the popularity of carbonated soft drinks, craft beer and flavoured cider. And Neale sees the can becoming the packaging of choice for other drink categories as well.

“UK consumers tend to associate cans with carbonated, sugary soft drinks. But other brands are maximising the design potential of using aluminium cans, taking some of the cues from the craft beer market, to change this perception.”

Changing perceptions of aluminium

One of these is CanO. The water brand, sold in bold black and white cans, has secured listings in 700 Tesco stores this year. “Over the last 12 months there has been a change in perception of single-use plastic and in welcoming alternatives that we didn’t see happening when we first started three years ago,” says co-founder Ariel Booker. He agrees with Neale that water in a can is a challenge in terms of consumer acceptance but says this is “changing rapidly”.

And there are other benefits to using aluminium besides replacing its plastic counterpart. “Aluminium is the only packaging local authorities collect that gives them a net positive in terms of cost,” says Marcel Arsand, sustainability manager at Ball Corporation and chairman of trade body The Can Makers. “Everything else costs money to collect and is pretty much subsidised by aluminium, which has a high value.”

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An estimated £75m was generated for local councils and waste management facilities from the 94,000 tonnes of aluminium packaging recycled last year, according to the Aluminium Packaging Recycling Organisation (Alupro).

It’s not just drinks that could add to this figure by switching to aluminium. Henrietta Morrison, founder of Lily’s Kitchen, says “petfood companies could be doing more to tackle single-use plastic waste”. The premium petfood brand already uses aluminium trays for its cat and wet dogfood, condemning the use of plastic pouches. “Currently in the UK, plastic petfood pouches are non-recyclable and it is estimated that in the case of catfood pouches alone, 8.8 billion of them end up in landfill every year,” says Morrison.

The thirst for a solution

While soft drinks, water and petfood could feasibly appear in aluminium formats, for Neale and Booker there is one product they can’t see appearing in cans any time soon. “We get asked a lot about moving milk away from big plastic containers to cans, but the consumer shift might be too much,” says Neale. “The consumer gets more value with larger portion packs of milk and they can use it over a period of time. It’s not really where the can is best placed.”

So what are the other options for drinks, besides aluminium? Selfridges has launched what it claims is the world’s first edible water bottle, Ooho, made from seaweed extract. And US brand Just Water, now available in the UK, has 82% renewable packaging, using a paper carton as the main body and a bioplastic cap and shoulders made from sugarcane. Other brands, rather than eliminating the material altogether, are switching to recycled plastic. Princes is using 51% recycled PET in all its plastic bottles, wholesaler Bidfood is switching to 50% recycled plastic for its own-brand water Springbourne, and the Co-op is set to roll out its own-label water in 50% recycled plastic bottles this year.

But according to a new report by The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) - which seeks to eliminate all plastic packaging waste by 2030 - soft drink and bottled water brands are not looking for a quick fix.

“These categories are keen to think longer term about what would be the best material going forward,” says Kinvara Carey, general manager at the Natural Hydration Council, which contributed to the report. It’s not just the manufacturers that need to collaborate to tackle the problem of plastic pollution, though. “If we’re going to tackle plastic in this sector then it must involve the whole value chain - how we use the materials, how we dispose of them and how we reuse them.”

Man made

And although plastic is forming its own island in the ocean, the material itself might not be the problem. Martin Kersh, executive director of the Foodservice Packaging Association, says more attention needs to be paid to how we manage waste in the UK as plastics actually play a vital role. “Plastics serve a critical purpose in protecting food and enabling the public to enjoy it at relatively low prices as masses of food can be transported without damage. It extends shelf life, reducing food waste, which is the absolute priority.

“And a consequence of packaging does not have to be marine pollution. That’s caused by man and it’s preventable. If the government is sincere in its pledges it will help to encourage investment in the UK recycling infrastructure.”

Last month, local authorities admitted over two thirds of plastic food packaging cannot be recycled. The Local Government Association is now calling for a ban on low-grade plastics, but also for manufacturers to help subsidise the cost of collection or disposal. “Handling food waste comes at a cost and local authorities are short of funds,” says Kersh. “They are really being squeezed and need every bit of support we can give them. They are finding it expensive to deal with waste management.”

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And it’s not just plastic. “Both compostable and biodegradable packs can still end up in the ocean if they aren’t disposed of correctly,” says Gillian Garside-Wight, packaging technology director at design specialist Sun Branding Solutions. “So while it might seem like a good idea to remove plastic from your packaging, if people don’t understand how to properly dispose of eco-friendly alternatives, then the responsibility has simply been moved from brand to consumer, and that isn’t a long-term solution.”

The CISL is asking the government to create consistent UK-wide deposit return schemes (DRS), which environment secretary Michael Gove has hinted at in the past, to encourage consumers to recycle their empty plastic bottles. 

More to be done

It’s a proposal Coca-Cola European Partners is backing, and with clout. Of the 480 billion plastic bottles sold globally in 2016, 110 billion were reportedly made by Coca-Cola, and the soft drinks giant has acted in the past to increase the percentage of these being reused. Its Lancashire-based reprocessing plant set up in 2011 ensures a quarter of all plastic used is from recycled bottles, and Coca-Cola has committed to increasing this to 50% by 2020, explains Nick Brown, head of sustainability. “The beverage industry has done a lot over the last few years to lead on sustainable packaging. It’s the first industry that’s using fully recyclable, widely collected and widely reused plastic packing.”

But there’s more to be done. Coca-Cola wants 100% of its bottles to be recycled by 2020 through a DRS. “Everything starts with an ambition and we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design a scheme that is fit for purpose for beverage manufacturing for many years to come - we want to make sure we grasp that opportunity.”

And there are plenty of opportunities for drink manufacturers, from aluminium cans to edible pods to simply making sure recyclable bottles don’t end up on a Cornish beach alongside crisp wrappers and other plastic pollution. But the pressure is on for every category to step up. “We don’t look at any food and drink category as ‘low-hanging fruit’,” says Walker of Iceland. “We need to tackle the scourge of plastic across the board.”

How five iconic brands might look in a plastic-free future