Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, about a thousand miles off the Californian coast, there is an accumulation of rubbish that spans an area twice the size of the US. Lying in the North Pacific gyre - a vortex where trade winds converge and the ocean circulates because of little wind - this vast "plastic soup" contains an estimated 100 million tonnes (mt) of flotsam, most of which is plastic. The waste is having a devastating effect on marine wildlife, drowning turtles, beaching whales and choking birds.
According to the UN Environment Programme, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals. Alarmingly, the oceanic rubbish dump is growing bigger every day, fed by durable plastic waste, which floats there from around the world. Scientists warn that if consumers do not cut back on their use of disposable plastics, the area will double in size over the next decade.
Packaging is a major contributor to the plastic waste that fills up our landfills and pollutes our oceans. According to the government's Food Matters report, an estimated 5.9mt of packaging waste enters the UK's household waste stream each year, of which around 4.7mt is food-related packaging. This waste is highly visible to consumers, who are starting to demand that retailers reduce the amount of packaging used on their food.
So far, the drive to reduce packaging has been largely industry driven. Since 1998, businesses throughout the supply chain have been responsible for minimising the amount of packaging they use and ensuring that a proportion of the packaging they handle is recovered and recycled. In 2005, a number of major grocery retailers and processors signed up to the Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement to tackle the amount of packaging waste generated by the food industry.
The Commitment encompasses three targets: to halt packaging waste growth by 2008; deliver absolute reductions in packaging waste in 2010; and help reduce the amount of food the nation's householders throw away by 155,000t by 2010, against a 2008 baseline.
To deliver them, retailers and processors are working in partnership with the government-funded Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to develop new packaging solutions and technologies across the supply chain. These include: using innovative packaging formats; reducing the weight of packaging - for example, bottles, cans and boxes; increasing the use of refill and self-dispensing systems; and collaboration on packaging design guidance.
The Commitment has already been successful. Signatories have managed to halt the growth in grocery packaging waste and are on target to meet their 2010 objectives of reducing such waste. In 2008, the UK recycled 61% of its packaging waste, a massive increase from the 28% achieved in 1997. This meant that over 6.6mt of packaging waste was diverted from landfill, avoiding over 8.9mt of CO2 equivalent emissions.
As Charlotte Henderson, WRAP Retail Supply Chain programme manager, points out, signatories have benefited from more than environmental kudos as a result of these reductions.
"There are a number of benefits involved with optimising packaging - processors can reduce costs, add value for the consumer and add shelf-life to products," she says. "Optimising packaging will also lead to improved distribution efficiencies, which will save more money and carbon."
Food waste consideration
Henderson stresses that packaging has an important role to play in the meat industry - specifically its ability to protect food and extend shelf-life.
"We need to think about food waste as well as packaging waste," she says. "The UK throws out 6.7mt of food waste per year per household, which includes 280,000t of meat and fish. Packaging can help us reduce that waste."
Optimising packaging is not necessarily about using less packaging, but about using the right amount and the right materials. An example of this is the carbon and cost savings achieved by Courtauld signatory M&S, which has made efforts to optimise beef packaging recently.
The retailer has switched from plastic trays to 'skin packs' for its beef joints, reducing packaging weight by 69%. This has led to a reduction in carbon, waste and cost involved with packaging the beef, and has improved distribution efficiencies. The skin packs have also extended shelf-life for four days, meaning that less meat is likely to go to waste.
"Extending shelf-life in this way will reduce waste not only at consumer level, but at retailer level, enabling supermarkets to reduce their waste," says Henderson.
Although producer-led schemes have proven successful, the government's Food Matters report concluded that packaging and its lack of recyclability is a continuing source of frustration for consumers. The report found that part of the problem lies in the waste management chain, which is devolved and managed separately in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Local authorities decide what materials to recycle, which means that certain materials are not being recycled in all areas.
In response to these findings, the government has developed a packaging strategy, launched by Defra in June. The overall aim of the strategy is to minimise the environmental impact of packaging, without compromising its ability to protect the product.
In order to achieve this, the government will work with a range of delivery bodies and industry so that, in 10 years' time, packaging is designed to use as little material as necessary to do the job - with reusability, recyclability or recovery in mind as standard. The government also plans to improve the recycling of plastic packaging, focusing on household waste streams.
Much of the government's work will be channelled through WRAP, which has recently announced a series of research projects looking at innovations in manufacturing, packaging, storage, distribution and retail.
"This innovative research, which spans the entire supply chain through to the consumer, will reduce costs and waste for retailers and food manufacturers," says Henderson. "We'll be sharing these results with industry from late 2009 and throughout 2010 and we're excited by the potential to deliver real change for the grocery sector, as well as helping consumers save money."
Meat-specific projects include a study into vacuum packaging solutions, which is being carried out by Giraffe Innovation, in partnership with The Co-Operative and Vion UK. The project will assess current vacuum-packed formats and resulting opportunities for improvements using alternative materials, new design opportunities, enhanced printing technologies and production processes, in-store formats and cost and supply chain analysis.
Rob Holdway of Giraffe says: "Throwing away food products has a high environmental and financial cost and meat is one of the highest. This challenging project will socially engineer a change in user behaviour through innovative packaging design. Ultimately, this will deliver significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat waste and benefit consumers and retailers alike."
A separate project will explore packaging optimisation for whole fresh chickens, carried out by Adare on behalf of Somerfield. Adare has produced a new kind of packaging, which uses a flexible shrink-wrap format in place of the traditional tray, and eliminates the need for self-adhesive labels by printing directly onto the film. It also has the added benefit of extending the shelf-life of the product by up to two days, by using a high-barrier film in conjunction with gas-flushing.
According to initial data supplied by the product supplier, this equates to a 74% packaging weight reduction.
"The flexible packaging solution that Adare has developed for Somerfield will significantly aid the consumer and the retailer in reducing the amount of plastic waste that is sent to landfill, as well as helping Somerfield to achieve its goal to reduce food waste," says Robert Whiteside, Adare's chief executive officer.
Buying into rPET
In response to retailer and government pressures, the packaging industry is working hard to come up with environmentally-friendly systems and materials for packaging meat. One of the most environmentally friendly materials in today's market place is recycled Polyethylene Terephthalate (rPET), which benefits from clarity, good shelf-life, rigidity and strong recycling credentials.
Linpac Packaging utilises rPET with a minimum of 50% post-consumer recycled content (PCR) for its Rfresh range of meat packaging. The company's director of innovation Alan Davey says: "Rfresh has better environmental credentials than our clearfresh range, which was produced from rigid polystyrene, because rPET is produced from recycled materials and can eventually be recycled with PET bottles."
While recycled materials are a good step forward for the industry, there are obvious safety implications involved with using PCR materials for food packaging. To overcome this, Linpac has invested heavily in rPET technology to ensure that its rPET sheet extrusion lines meet food contact safety protocols from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The innovation enables Linpac to use 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) flake, while maintaining the same food contact integrity of prime virgin PET.
"We have complete control over the production process, so we can guarantee the food safety of our materials," says Davey.
Not all retailers are switching to rPET. Davey says that some retailers are sticking with expanded foam polystyrene (EPS), which is a very cost-effective material.
"Morrisons has stuck with foam barriers, which do not give the same clarity but have a lighter weight and a much lower carbon footprint," he says.
Despite these advantages, EPS has a bad name when it comes to the environment. The light weight of EPS trays means they blow away easily and are therefore regularly spotted in the UK's rivers. Discarded polystyrene does not biodegrade and is resistant to photolysis - there is no doubt an abundance of EPS trays floating in the Pacific ocean.
Other retailers are experimenting with skin and vacuum packs, which can dramatically reduce packaging weight and improve distribution efficiencies. Davey says there are implications for aesthetics with these methods, however. "Skin packs have proven unpopular with consumers, because they turn fresh red meats brown. They actually don't compromise shelf-life, but they look unattractive and can put consumers off." Vacuum packs have similar problems, with meat browning and off-odours reported.
Henderson does not think these problems should rule skin and vacuum packaging out. She says that, with some education, consumers could come around to these types of packaging. "In other countries we are seeing much more vacuum-packed meat, which shows that it is possible," she says. "It's all about communicating the benefits of these sorts of packaging to consumers."
With focus on reducing the packaging waste sent to landfill, biodegradable packaging could seem like an attractive option, but Davey says that using biodegradable materials for packaging is not particularly environmentally friendly. "Biodegradables cost more, have a high carbon footprint and cause all sorts of problems when it comes to disposal," he says.
"Domestic consumers don't want to compost food trays at the bottom of their garden and most cannot be composted in home composting systems; industrial composting plants don't want them because they look like plastic, and local authorities don't want them because they are mandated to reduce the biodegradable waste in landfill."
The EU Landfill Directive has set demanding targets to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal rubbish landfilled, because these materials can pollute groundwater and soils and increase methane emissions. "Most retailers have realised that biodegradables are not all they are shaped up to be. They seem to have fallen by the wayside," says Davey.
For poultry, polypropylene (PP) trays are still by far the most popular material. Davey says this is largely down to the fact that clarity is not so important for poultry. "Consumers don't like looking at raw chicken and PP gives the appearance of clarity, but actually masks part of the appearance," says Davey. Until recently, there have been few alternatives to virgin PP trays, but packaging producers such as Linpac are starting to improve the PCR content in their PP ranges.
Linpac now offers PP trays with 15% PCR high-density polyethylene (HDPE) which have passed the relevant food safety tests. "We are completely satisfied that the trays produced from this process perform as well as those manufactured from virgin material and offer the same benefits, including a cost-effective packaging solution," says Davey.
A key problem for PP is that there is no PCR stream for the material in the UK. WRAP is currently looking at ways to improve this situation, through a venture on mixed plastic recycling, and has carried out various trials to test the cost-effectiveness of recycling such materials. In the hope of boosting the UK's mixed plastics recycling capacity by at least 40,000t per year by 2010, WRAP is offering a new capital grant worth £2m to facilities that will be capable of sorting, recycling and reprocessing a range of mixed plastic (non bottle) packaging.
Help from equipment firms
Machinery companies are also working hard to help customers reduce packaging and food waste. "Environmental concerns are becoming very important for the majority of Reiser's packaging projects," says Reiser UK director of packaging Rob Allen.
"They are a prime consideration, and the main drive is towards packaging minimisation; keeping materials to a minimum while improving shelf-life." When it comes to reducing packaging materials, Reiser believes that thermoforming is the way forward.
"Thermoforming is very popular at the minute. It stretches the film, using the thinnest material possible and thus reducing pack weight, making it a popular choice," says Allen.
Reiser offers thermoforming machines that can produce both skin packs and shrink packs for all capacity requirements.
"Demand is strong for both skin packs and shrink packs, which reduce packaging while extending shelf-life. Both also offer very good pack presentation, which is why they are very popular at the moment," adds Allen.
In addition to reducing packaging, processors and retailers can help to reduce household packaging waste by offering a range of pack sizes. "Offering a variety of pack sizes is increasingly important, now that we are seeing more single-person households," says Henderson. "It is also important to think how packs can be resealed for later use, as this will minimise waste."
With this in mind, Mecaplastic has developed a range of pack sizes, from single-portion through to Gastronorm 1. "Our extensive rage of sizes means we can supply a size to meet an exact requirement, so there is no over-packaging and of course no waste," says Mark Stepney, UK divisional manager of Mecaplastic.
In addition to reducing waste at the household end, packaging companies are striving to reduce waste at the plant. Mecaplastic has developed a range of sealing machines that are equipped with its patented 'film optimisation system'. "This allows more than one size of tool to be used at the same time and reduces film waste by optimising edge trim," says Stepney.
It is also important to consider the environmental efficiency of the packaging machines themselves. "Our machines have been developed to consume less electricity and compressed air in their run cycles, and the water cooling sytems recycle the water to reduce consumption," adds Stepney.
Little future change
Davey does not think that meat packaging materials will radically change in future. "The three materials that will last are PET, EPS and PP," he says. "I don't see any one dominating, because they all give a solution to different priorities. I also don't see people coming in with radical new materials - if it doesn't tick, it won't happen."
One area which could see developments in coming years is "intelligent packaging", which can monitor the condition of packaged food and give information regarding quality and safety. Sensor technologies, indicators (including integrity, freshness and time-temperature (TTI) indicators) and radio frequency identification (RFID) are being evaluated for potential future use.
Some of these technologies could indicate when a meat is safe to eat, which could potentially be used to replace use-by and best-before dates and thus reduce food waste. "Use-by and best-before dates are driving a lot of food waste. Consumers don't really understand these dates," says Henderson.
There are some barriers to the uptake of this technology, however, including cost and the need for any functions to be evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
"Any materials that come into contact with food will need rigorous testing," says Henderson.
Meanwhile, WRAP will continue to work with the industry to help it communicate with consumers and drive packaging optimisation. In addition to the research projects currently under way, WRAP is planning to do some resource mapping for the meat sector in the near future, which will involve looking at waste and packaging waste down the supply chain, seeking to find opportunities and solutions to improve.
Once again, the focus will not just be on reducing packaging, but on optimising it to extend shelf-life and minimise waste. "Packaging plays a really important role in the meat industry and will continue to do so," says Henderson. "It's just important to get it right."