Bioplastics, used wisely alongside waste reduction and recycling initiatives, are already helping brand owners achieve sustainability targets. Emma-Jane Batey reports on their rich potential as a green packaging material.
Brand owners and retailers are constantly seeking reduce their carbon footprint and meet ever-evolving sustainability targets, whether self-imposed or dictated by the European Government. According to the EU’s sustainable development strategy, “Retailers in Europe are in an exceptional position to promote more sustainable consumption, not only via their daily contact with millions of European consumers, but also through their own actions and partnerships with suppliers.” With this in mind, Packaging Today spoke to key packaging players about the more eco-friendly future in store.
One well-known brand that is regularly quoted as ‘doing the right thing’ in terms of positive brand identity is Innocent Drinks. The smoothie manufacturer’s start-up story has been repeated so many times it has become marketing folklore. With this incredibly strong identity for ecological awareness, however, comes a great responsibility. For packaging operations manager Graham Fox, the alternative plastics that have so far been trialled haven’t been unqualified successes. “We’re all about being as responsible as possible when it comes to packaging, and in everything that we do, he says. “If using bioplastics is the right thing to do, we’ll do it, and if it isn’t, we won’t. Innocent tried using 100% recycled PET for its smoothie bottles, but it had pretty low consumer acceptance, because it wasn’t crystal clear. Even though it was perfectly acceptable in terms of food contact safety, the slight grey tint put customers off, which isn’t what the company was after.”
Innocent Drinks is staying open-minded about using bioplastic packaging in the future, and is constantly assessing how the look and feel of sustainable materials are changing as technology improves. Fox notes that the most important thing for the brand is to be “doing what actually works for the customer and the environment”, rather than simply jumping on the latest green bandwagon. “Innocent uses as much recycled plastic as possible and we use the labels on our bottles to encourage our customers to recycle the bottle too,” he adds. “The customer feedback is that the packaging messages are well loved and quite influential. Innocent now uses 50% recycled PET and is involved in getting the UK recycling infrastructure up to a higher level, so that the quality of recycled PET is where it needs to be in terms of clarity.”
This suggestion that the support surrounding the UK recycling industry could make a big difference to the large-scale take-up of more sustainable packaging is reflected in the work carried out by the European Bioplastics Association (EUBA). Kristy-Barbara Lange, head of communication for Berlin-based EUBA, told Packaging Today, “Brand owners that use bio-based plastics help to reduce the impact of their products (from bottles to high-tech sports shirts) on the environment. If they produce durable products that, ideally, are recyclable, they can turn their products into a ‘carbon sink’ contributing to climate protection. Keeping in mind the ultimate goal to reduce material use and increase resource efficiency in a bio-based circular economy, bioplastics can contribute in several key aspects. ‘Bioplastics’ is a quite broad term that describes a group of plastics that are bio-based, biodegradable/compostable, or both.
“Being bio-based – using biomass as feedstock – is the main attribute. The benefits here are substitution of fossil resources by renewable feedstock increasing resource efficiency and reducing the carbon footprint of the material produced at the same time. Provided, of course, that the biomass is sourced sustainably.”
Advantages of bioplastics
Bioplastics are one of a number of ingredients required to improve sustainability. As Kristy-Barbara Lange comments, “For some products and markets, adding biodegradability or compostability can be beneficial. The latter is particularly advantageous in food/drink packaging. Several European case studies have shown that collection volumes rise when compostable packaging can be picked up alongside bio-waste. This means diverting bio-waste from landfill, and also from other mechanical recycling streams in which bio-waste might be mistakenly end up.”
Lange’s views mirror the comments made by Innocent’s Fox about the how the right infrastructure enables bioplastics use to flourish. She adds, “For big retailers, of course, a functioning composting infrastructure and the corresponding packaging can have cost benefits: rotting products can be disposed of with their packaging. New film solutions for fresh produce also offer a range of barrier properties that extend shelf-life.”
Bioplastics and biopackaging producers are keen to support this growing demand for realistic alternatives to ‘traditional’ packaging materials, and, as the UK’s leading developer and supplier of eco-friendly food packaging, Biopac is making significant headway in this sector. “Biopac’s work includes supporting sustainability programmes for fast-food retailers, fresh produce manufacturers, airline disposables, outdoor events and retailers,” marketing manager Karen Randall told Packaging Today. “Adopting sustainable packaging can prove that it pays to be green; brand values can be enhanced and corporate sustainability targets met with environmentally friendly packaging. Biopac’s mission is to establish high-performance alternatives to oil-based and unsustainable materials by researching and developing new materials, finding renewable feedstocks and using novel technologies.”
Burger giant McDonald’s, which has a reputation that tends to be perceived as the direct opposite of Innocent’s, is now offering responsible packaging is part of an image makeover. “At McDonald’s we recognise our responsibility to protect and preserve the environment for future generations to come,” says press officer Ellen Wright. “The goal is to continually improve the company’s impact on the environment; all of its activities revolve around the priorities of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’. McDonald’s ambition is to recycle at least half of its waste, and send none of the remainder to landfill, diverting the remaining waste to something more sustainable, such as energy from waste facilities. As much recycled material as is safe and practical us used in the packaging. For example, every napkin and wrap is made from completely recycled materials. The McDonald’s vision for 2020 is for packaging to be 100% sustainable, renewable, and recyclable.”
While bioplastics do not yet feature in the McDonald’s packaging plan, the company is pleased to incorporate a number of initiatives to support its environmental responsibility. “In recent years, McDonald’s has made a number of moves to meet its goal of continuous environmental improvement, using its scale to maximise its positive environmental impact and trialling new technologies to be at the forefront of environmental practice,” says Wright. “McDonald’s recycles 3.7 million litres of cooking oil each year, turning it into biodiesel, which supplies 42% of the fuel used by its distribution fleet. In addition to cooking oil, it also recycles over 40% of waste, including kitchen food, coffee grounds, clean plastic, paper and tin. The introduction of waterless urinals allows McDonald’s to save more than 150 million litres of water every year. It has also introduced litter patrols on the streets since 1982, picking up all rubbish, not just McDonald’s packaging.”
As the UK’s leading dairy business, Arla Foods is active across Europe, with popular brands including Anchor, Cravendale and Lurpak. Supplying over 3.3billion litres of milk a year in the UK alone, Arla uses a lot of packaging and, as a co-operative business owned by the 12,500 farmers it represents throughout the UK and Europe, it is passionate about maintaining a sustainable business. Head of packaging innovation Phil O’Driscoll explains how the business is keen to embrace sustainable packaging: “Arla won’t adopt bioplastics just for the sake of it; it’s assessing how bioplastics can be integrated into our production alongside other sorts of ecologically sound packaging. Arla is currently using bioplastics in a very limited area – just one format in one country, for the cap on a tetrapak in Sweden – and so far it is pleased with it. The firm is reluctant to go gung-ho into plant-based plastics until the ethics around bio-derived plastics are a lot clearer, however. Why should land be used to grow plants for plastics, if could be better used for growing food, for example?”
Part of the solution
Phil O’Driscoll points out that the most important action for brand owners is to meet, or exceed, sustainability targets, by whatever means are at their disposal. “My responsibility is to ensure that Arla reduces its carbon footprint, or increases the level of recycled material, or cuts down on waste, or whatever else it can do to be a responsible business. Ethical and cost issues around bioplastics have not yet been fully resolved, this issue is being watched with interest, because if bioplastics can be a part of any future strategy for responsible packaging, Arla wants to be involved. Bioplastics are certainly not off the agenda, but deriving packaging from waste, rather than from a material that must be grown specifically, is something that must be cracked.”