In February, for example, Greencore announced a range of measures, committing to 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025 and the sustainable sourcing of all raw materials by 2030. Earlier in the month global bakery ingredients business Zeelandia made a pledge to make its use of palm oil 100% sustainable.
Initiatives such as these are well timed, according to Saskia Nuijten, head of public engagement at European innovation initiative EIT Food. “2020 was a year like no other,” she explains. “The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fragility of our food system and the long road ahead to reshape various aspects of the food supply chain from farm to fork.”
Nuijten believes that consumers are increasingly looking for better access to affordable food that will benefit both the planet and their health. She points to a recent EIT food study that showed an accelerated demand for healthy and sustainable food during the pandemic as well as increased scrutiny of packaging and label information – whether for health, hygiene or sustainability concerns.
“Despite the many challenges, our food system showed great ability to adapt quickly as it maintained steady food supplies throughout the pandemic. A lot has changed since last year, and consumer behaviour and priorities changed with it,” says Nuijten.
“As we come out the other side, COVID-19 is leaving behind important learnings for the sector. The transition to a sustainable food system fit for the future will rely on collaborative, cross-sector partnerships.”
The bigger picture
Not least among those essential partnerships will be those formed between food manufacturers and suppliers of sustainable raw material, whether food components and ingredients or packaging.
In terms of the business incentive, as Nuijten pointed out there is significant consumer demand. But it’s not just about business – there’s the small matter of the planet’s future to consider.
Many food manufacturers dealing with immediate disruptions such as COVID-19 and Brexit could be forgiven for thinking they have more important things to do than save the world. However, Dan Featherstone, founder of Berkshire-based artisanal snacks company Made For Drink, says it was his nine-year-old son Henry who jolted him into seeing the bigger picture.
Featherstone explains: “About two years ago now, off the back of a school topic he asked if we were putting plastic into the oceans. The answer was yes. I hadn't asked myself that question but, yes, we must have been. It made me realise how my business was changing.
“When your business is small, you’re just starting out and your hand has touched every pack sold. You’re so wrapped up in the magic of seeing your idea come to life, the bigger environmental impacts seem not to matter. But we were now selling to the mults. More and more people were wanting our products. It felt as if I was losing touch with what was really important. So I decided to change that.”
Featherstone took action. The first thing he did was write ‘do the right thing’ on his office wall. This wasn’t simply a trite maxim, because 18 months later the company is moving all its products to plastic-free, home compostable packaging.
“We decided home compostable is by far the best solution for businesses like ours,” Featherstone explains. “All plastic is removed and replaced with two innovative layers made from biomass and wood pulp.”
There are, of course, many options when it comes to sustainable packaging for food and drink, and not all of them are plastic free. The Isle of Man creamery, for example, claims to have produced the first plant-based milk cartons in the British Isles in late 2018.
The fully recyclable cartons are made primarily of wood-based board, sourced from the Forest Stewardship Council certified forests. This means that the materials used are independently audited as both renewable and sustainable.
The plastic elements of the cartons are made from sugar cane sourced from Brazil and grown on degraded or pre-farmed pasture, ensuring that there is no encroachment on natural habitats.
The result was that a direct comparison of January to June 2018 and January to June 2020 showed a saving of over 25 tonnes of single use plastic – almost one tonne every week.
The Isle of Man Creamery worked with Tetra-Pak to identify the plant-based cartons, called Tetra-Rex, as the best packaging for its milk products. Lars Ohlsson, liquid food solution director at Tetra Pak, says such collaboration is commonplace.
“Product innovation itself is critical,” he explains. “There is so much experimentation taking place right now, and these market transformations play a crucial role in making food and drink processing more sustainable.”
Another project showing the value of experimentation is by glass container manufacturer Encirc and industry research and technology organisation Glass Futures, who are making new bottles from 100% recycled glass, using only the energy derived from burning ultra-low-carbon biofuels.
The project forms part of the BEIS Energy Innovation Programme, within which Glass Futures is leading a £7.1m project to help determine the most effective way to switch the glass sector to low carbon fuels.
Aston Fuller, general manager of Glass Futures, says: “The trial is delivering fantastic results for the manufacturer, end user and consumer. Glass is a fully recyclable and highly sustainable product, but through this trial we are beginning to see the dawn of net-zero technologies with Encirc with a full-scale trial of a new alternative low-carbon fuel.”
Despite the technological breakthroughs, the sustainable packaging sector faces some tough challenges, not least in finding innovative solutions that are profitable for the producer and affordable for the consumers.
“That’s not easy!” says Stefano Mele, chief executive officer of food packaging company Fabbri Group. According to Mele, there are two main issues. First, sustainable packaging is generally more expensive than traditional solutions. Secondly, there is no difference to the naked eye.
On the second point, Mele says: “It must be clearly communicated to clients and consumers. Communication, communication, communication! Also, how to properly differentiate packaging after use should be clearly communicated, something that the market has been asking for the last few years.”
Andrew Grimbaldeston, commercial director for packaging firm Colpac, observes that too often, retail agendas, priorities and specific initiatives are not necessarily aligned with what is possible from a material perspective.
“The balance will come as sustainable solutions become the norm rather than in project-related pockets, allowing the price of these solutions to align with market expectations,” he says. “Alongside this, decision making on sustainability needs to be based on facts rather than the latest media hot topic.”
Food for thought
Of course, sustainability isn’t just about packaging. To take the broader view, it’s important to take several steps back and look at the food and drink that goes into the packets. One high-profile issue concerns the damage to natural habitats and deforestation associated with ingredients such as palm oil and cocoa.
“Historically, unsustainable palm oil production has led to widespread rainforest clearance – releasing damaging greenhouse gases, threatening the habitat of endangered species, displacing indigenous communities and leading to worker exploitation,” says Gary Lewis, head of business development, oils and fats, for KTC Edibles.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. According to Lewis, palm oil can be sustainable and ethical so long as the right decisions are made.
“We are committed to making sustainable palm oil the norm and our commitment runs through the supply chain – from the farms and plantations, to manufacturing and final delivery to customers.
“Our goal is to make RSPO Certified Sustainable Segregated palm oil the minimum acceptable standard in the UK. We have already begun to phase out all non-sustainable products, and by 2022, we will only sell 100% certified sustainable palm oil.”
Astrid Duque, managing director of oil producer Daabon UK, admits that palm oil’s reputation as an inherently unsustainable product has seen food manufacturers switching to alternatives over the last few decades.
“However,” she says, “in most cases, these alternatives are more damaging than palm in terms of deforestation, exploitation and biodiversity loss.”
Duque says it’s up to sustainable producers to challenge these misconceptions both via effective communication and leading by example. “We can do this by consistently improving standards, encouraging accountability through independent accreditation, and by making truly sustainable options as widely available and attractive as possible.”
KTC Edibles’ Lewis argues that there are other undesirable impacts from shunning palm oil altogether. “Boycotting palm oil would put economies at risk in South East Asia,” he says. “With 40% of the world’s palm oil coming from smallholders, this would cause direct harm to some of the world’s poorest people.”
Lewis believes the challenge lies in educating businesses ‘in terms of what sustainability is, why it matters, and the specific decisions they can make when it comes to sourcing’. “Other challenges include availability and cost. Sustainable solutions have to be readily available at a commercially viable price. Thankfully, sustainable palm oil has never been more available or affordable.”
Andrew Brooks, head of sustainability at Olam Cocoa, insists that sustainable sourcing is crucial to his company's products, adding: “Only by establishing an environmentally positive, professionalised cocoa supply chain where farmers can earn a living income can we ensure that cocoa supply remains an attractive profession for future generations.”
In 2019, Olam launched Cocoa Compass, which aims to help 150,000 farmers to achieve a living income, eliminate child labour from its direct supply chain and reduce natural capital costs by 30%, all by 2030.
“Traceability is a crucial step towards unlocking the answers to eradicating issues in the food supply chain, like child labour and deforestation,” says Brooks. “Last year, we achieved 100% traceability in our directly-sourced cocoa supply chain, giving customers unprecedented transparency right back to the farm or community about where and how their cocoa is grown.”
Close to home
The issues surrounding palm oil and cocoa are truly global concerns, but sustainable sourcing can take a more direct and immediate path for food and drink manufacturers.
Cambridgeshire plant-based producer Glebe Farm Foods, for example, is run with heightened awareness of its environmental footprint.
“We use renewable energy including solar energy and two biomass approved boilers burning oat chaff which heat working areas and the water used in producing Glebe products,” says director Rebecca Rayner.
“Excess power is returned to the National Grid. The farm engages in active environmental stewardship and around 20% of the land is turned over to bird cover and wildflowers to encourage diverse wildlife,” she adds.
Getting the bug
The wider plant-based movement’s environmental credentials have helped its exponential growth over recent years but as the quest for sustainable food sources expands, some solutions are less vegan-friendly.
Snack brand Small Giants, for example, produces savoury crackers made with 15% cricket flour. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation promotes the eating of insects. It maintains they require much less land, water, feed and energy than traditional protein sources such as cattle and produce less than 0.1% of the greenhouse gases that cows produce.
In case you think demand is a barrier to insect-based food, a 2018 Sainsbury’s report found that almost 10% of consumers had already tried edible insects, and 57% said they enjoyed them. Over four in 10 (42%) said they would be willing to try insects in the future.
So, with the environmental crisis showing no sign of abating, perhaps it’s time for food manufacturers to think outside the (sustainably sourced) box.