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Sustainable packaging involves developing and using packaging which improves sustainability. The packaging should reduce the environmental impact and ecological footprint.
The term sustainable does not have a set definition or criteria and therefore can often be overused. The term implies that the environmental impact of producing the product has been minimised, and consumers will usually assume that the continuous production of the product does not use up resources that cannot be replaced faster than they are used.
Eco-friendly is also used at times instead of the word sustainable and should mean that a product or business does not harm the environment and conserves resources.
In the UK each year, households use over 500,000 tonnes of plastic food packaging but only 170,000 tonnes gets recycled. Only one third of plastic is recycled in the UK every year.
Particular concerns surrounding plastics include their accumulation in the oceans and landfills and also the generation of micro plastics and nano plastics and human exposure to toxins when the chemicals in food packaging can be transferred to food. Thankfully sustainable food packaging options are on the rise.
What is sustainable food packaging?
Packaging is an essential part of food manufacturing. Sustainable food packaging is about reducing the environmental footprint of packed food.
Innovative sustainable packaging aims to reduce food waste and loss reduction by improving food quality, as well as food safety issues such as food borne diseases and food chemical contamination. It should also address the issue of plastic waste, as well as saving oil and food material resources.
As sustainable practices are considered to be standard practice for businesses now, the term ‘carbon neutral’ is often used and is becoming a popular goal for companies. It describes making or resulting in no net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere especially as a result of carbon offsetting.
If you want to understand your carbon emissions as a business and access support on how to reduce these, Positive Planet UK can help you get started with this.
Why is sustainable food packaging important?
As climate change has become an important issue around the world, businesses want to show consumers that they are thinking about it as well.
Around 100 million tonnes of food is wasted annually in the EU. This leads to huge environmental impacts. A large part of food wastage is related to the short shelf life of a lot of fresh produce.
Also, inaccuracies or misunderstanding of food date labels are responsible for 20% of the avoidable disposal of food which is still edible. Packaging has been identified as a key element in addressing sustainable food consumption.
It is a common misconception that shifting to a more eco-friendly packaging option means that you will lose out on quality as sustainable food packaging options are often more durable. Petroleum based food packaging is harmful to the environment and also poses numerous health risks.
While it may not be possible to completely avoid these plastics, choosing eco-friendly food packaging that is less toxic, biodegradable or recyclable is a good step towards mitigating plastic’s harmful effects on the environment and on your own health.
Differences between biodegradable, compostable and recyclable
Biodegradable food packaging
This means that the packaging will break down quicker. Biodegradable plastics can break down into micro plastics, which are smaller fragments of plastic. Micro plastics are thought to be damaging if they end up in the ocean although they are thought to be a better, greener alternative to plastic.
If something is biodegradable, given the right conditions and the presence of bacteria, fungi or microorganisms, it will eventually break down to its basic components and blend back into the earth.
These substances should degrade without leaving any toxins behind, although this is not always the case. For example, when a plant-based product breaks down into carbon dioxide, water and other naturally occurring minerals, the substance mixes back into the earth, leaving no toxins behind. However, many materials, even those with a biodegradable label, break down in a more harmful manner.
This can leave chemicals and other damaging substances in the soil. The best biodegradable materials will break down quickly, rather than taking years. They should leave nothing harmful behind and save landfill space.
Not everything that is advertised as biodegradable meets this criteria. If you are running a green business, you should ensure things are accurately labelled and you should make sure you know how to ensure that the materials you are using are efficiently and safely biodegradable.
Biodegradable items include:
- Food scraps.
- Wood that has not been treated with chemicals to prevent rotting and insects.
- Some metal, although this may take years.
It is also important to consider the conditions in which biodegradability is encouraged. Some products that will degrade in home compost heaps or in nature will not biodegrade in landfills, where there will not be enough light, bacteria and water to encourage the process.
Compostable food packaging
This means that the packaging breaks down into its original components and therefore can be placed in a food waste bin. Once it is composted, it should not be any harm to the environment.
Compostable packaging will not have the same barrier properties as plastic; for example, if a vacuum seal is required in order to keep the product fresh. Some compostable materials can only be composted through industrial processes which are not widely available.
Compostable food packaging is made, disposed of and breaks down in a way that is kinder to the environment than plastic. It is made from recycled, plant-based materials and can go back into the earth quickly and safely as soil when disposed of in the right environmental conditions.
Recyclable food packaging
This packaging can be processed and used again. Paper, glass, metal and certain types of plastic are able to be recycled. Packaging materials should contain a symbol to inform the consumer if the packaging is able to be recycled.
Most packaging is recyclable but will need to be separated and sorted. It simply means that the packaging is made of materials that can be used again.
You can read further about exactly which materials can be recycled and how to do this by visiting the recycling facts page of the recyclingbins.co.uk website.
Sustainable food packaging options
Examples of sustainable food packaging options are:
- Dissolvable or biodegradable packaging.
- Paper bubble wrap alternative which can be recycled after use.
- Biodegradable air pillows made from recycled plastic.
- Hybrid meal delivery boxes.
- Containers made from recycled food waste transformed into paper-like substances.
- Biodegradable takeout containers.
- Washable fruit cups.
- Glass confection jars.
- Edible bowls.
- Cornstarch can be used to make plates, trays and portion-sized boxes. These can be a good alternative to polystyrene.
- Popcorn is another sustainable packaging option to replace non-biodegradable plastic packing peanuts.
- Mushroom and waste avocado seeds have been used to make packaging and can be composted after use.
- Some independent shops and supermarkets have reduced packaging waste altogether with zero waste packaging free dispensers. This encourages shoppers to reuse containers they have at home rather than using additional packaging.
Types of food packaging materials
There are various types of food packaging materials that can be used safely.
- Paper and cardboard – This type of packaging is low cost and lightweight. It is also widely recyclable and compostable. However, the barrier of paper-based packaging is weak and therefore when it comes into contact with water or moisture, it can be easily damaged.
- Glass – This is a good material for long shelf life food as it is moisture and heat resistant. Glass will not react with the food and it can be transparent, allowing the consumer to see the food inside the packaging. Alternatively, the glass can also be coloured so that the light will not affect the food or drink product inside. Glass can be widely recycled and is viewed as a sustainable material.
- Metal – Metal packaging is usually made from stainless steel, tinplate and aluminium. The packaging is durable, heat resistant and the material can be widely recycled. Metal cans which contain acidic foods may result in corrosion, changing the quality of the food and affecting its shelf life.
- Food grade plastic – Food grade plastic packaging is one of the best materials for food safety and quality of a product. This material has good barrier qualities so it protects the food from potential contaminants, it protects the shelf life, and it prevents it from reducing in quality or spoiling. This helps to reduce the food waste going to landfill. Some food grade plastics are recyclable including polyethylene terephthalate, high density polyethylene and polypropylene.
What types of plastic to avoid?
Approximately 60% of all plastic produced worldwide is produced for food packaging purposes. Due to the environmental and human health effects of non-degradable plastic packaging, many people are fighting to reduce plastic production and increase recycling.
It is not economical or environmentally effective to recycle some forms of plastic and it can make recycling efforts much more difficult for other types of plastic. Some types of plastic packaging are not widely recycled and are often only used once, causing harm to the environment.
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
- Low density polyethylene.
Plastic films, plastic wrapping and thin plastic bags can clog processing machinery if they are processed with larger, heavier, more rigid recyclable plastics. It is important not to put them into recycling bins unless you know they are recyclable.
Unfortunately, just because an item says that it is recyclable, this does not mean that it will be accepted. It is important to check with your recycling company who should have guidance on exactly what they will accept.
You can usually mix your different plastic recycling products as long as all of the products you are mixing will be accepted. It is extremely important not to put the wrong types of plastic into a recycling bin. This can clog the machinery and also this can contaminate the other recyclable plastic.
Plastics to avoid are:
- Single use plastics – This includes straws, beverage bottles, bottle caps and plastic bags. They are often inappropriately disposed of and used once.
- Plastic with BPA – Bisphenal A is a plasticiser additive used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a material used in many plastic products.
- Plastic takeout containers – These contribute to large amounts of waste that leads to pollution and environmental toxins.
It is important to try and avoid single use plastic due to the risk to human health and the negative consequences to the environment.
Methods are being used in order to separate recyclable and non-recyclable waste; however, contaminated waste that cannot be separated runs the risk of being sent to landfill in its entirety.
If plastic cannot be recycled, sometimes it can be reprocessed in a different way. For example, plastic carrier bags can be reused and this is encouraged by the carrier bag charge. Other plastics can also be reused, for example, solid clean polystyrene can be broken down and can produce packing chips, and plastic bottles can be rinsed and reused.
There are many disadvantages to using plastic:
- It does not biodegrade quickly and breaks down into micro plastics, which can then enter the food supply chain.
- Plastic is often used for single use items that are thrown away. This is unsustainable.
- Not all plastic can be recycled, reused or repurposed.
- Public perception of plastic is negative and therefore it is beneficial for businesses to move away from the use of plastic.
It is important to consider where you can move away from plastic packaging and how waste and broken packaging is handled within your company.
Plastic is a huge environmental issue and problem for our planet:
- 500 million tonnes of plastic are produced annually worldwide.
- It is predicted that by 2050, the oceans could contain more plastic than fish.
- Every year, 500 billion plastic bottles are produced worldwide.
- In 2020 we generated more than 500 million tonnes of plastic, which is 900% more than in 1980.
- Every year, around 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans.
- Plastic in the ocean is already more than 8 million tonnes of waste.
Reducing your consumption of plastic requires not only a change in habit, but also a change of mindset.
Single use plastics account for half of the plastic we use each year. On average they are used for 15 minutes and yet can take up to 500 years to disappear.
What type of sustainable food packaging should be used?
Statistics indicate that consumer packaging causes the most amount of plastic and paper waste, which accounts for about 20% of all waste in landfills. Sustainable food packaging uses earth friendly materials to package a product.
Examples of sustainable food packaging are:
- Paper and card – These are organic materials which are friendly to the environment. Many drop-off facilities collect cardboard which is often recycled into material boxes, fast food boxes, frozen food boxes and other various packaging options.
- Kraft paper – This material is made from wood pulp, meaning the materials used to make kraft paper are plant based and therefore are very friendly to the environment. The material is also recyclable and compostable.
- Glass – This material can be used again and again. It is a trusted material when it comes to sustainable food packaging. A consumer may choose this type of packaging over others due to its ability to preserve a product’s taste and integrity.
- Metal – This material has been used for a long time and has a statistically proven safety and sustainability record. The recycling benefits of this material mean the waste does not end up in landfills.
- Certain types of plastic, mainly PET plastic – This type of packaging uses plastic materials which are safe, non-toxic, strong, flexible and recyclable. It is a popular, transparent packaging material and is often preferred over glass packaging due to the safety it provides. It is also light and offers an excellent barrier.
- Corn-starch – The materials used to make these types of food packaging are derived from corn and maize plants. This means they are fully biodegradable. It is important that the packaging is disposed of properly, as it will then break down into carbon dioxide and water which causes no harm to the environment. The material is sustainable, cheap and easy to produce.
- Compostable bowls with lids food packaging – These are usually made from sugarcane fibre, which is a by-product from sugar manufacturing factories. It is 100% biodegradable.
What are the advantages of sustainable food packaging?
There are many benefits of switching to sustainable food packaging options.
These benefits include:
- Reducing the amount of product package waste.
- Packaging related costs will decrease.
- Using renewable and reusable materials.
- Eliminating the use of toxic materials in the production of packaging.
- Decreasing your carbon footprint.
- Improving the brand image of a company.
There are advantages to using specific types of sustainable food packaging.
Paper and card
- Is a widely recyclable material.
- It is compostable.
- It does not break down into micro plastics.
- Glass can be widely recycled.
- It is easy to repurpose and reuse.
- Products can be pasteurised in glass, making it convenient for long-life products.
- Glass also has great barrier qualities which is good for shelf life.
- Glass can be clear which can allow the consumer to see the product inside.
- Metal can be widely recycled.
- Products can be pasteurised, making it suitable for long-life products.
- It has great barrier qualities which is good for shelf life.
What are the disadvantages of sustainable food packaging?
We know that there are many benefits of switching to eco-friendly or sustainable food packaging; however, there are also some disadvantages which will need to be considered. Firstly, the cost of switching can be expensive for many small businesses.
It can lead to higher costs in the production process or in other parts of your operation. Sustainable food packaging can cut costs in the long run; however, it can be difficult to predict when this will happen.
Another criticism for some eco-friendly packaging materials is that they can require the cultivation of crops. For example, cornstarch packaging comes from corn. While corn is a renewable and cost-effective crop, it can be criticised by those who feel that it could serve a better purpose by feeding people and alleviating poverty and hunger.
Also, sustainable food packaging materials can break down well, but only if they are disposed of correctly. There is a risk of cross-contamination as they can end up in recycling facilities. This can impact other recyclable materials and can result in even more waste than intended.
When considering individual, sustainable food packaging options, there are also some disadvantages to these:
Paper and card
- Has a reduced barrier quality compared to plastic, resulting in a shorter shelf life.
- New paper requires the cutting down of trees as it is not always made out of recycled materials.
- It can be easier to break or damage than other materials.
- Paper is often more expensive than plastic.
- The product inside cannot be viewed as the material is not transparent.
- Does not biodegrade quickly.
- Glass cannot be made out of 100% recycled materials as this would not be strong enough.
- Glass is energy intensive in order to produce it and recycle it.
- It is often more expensive than a plastic alternative material.
- Glass can break if it is damaged which can compromise the safety of the product inside.
- It is heavier to transport. This increases the fuel consumption and costs.
- Metal is energy intensive to produce and recycle.
- It takes a long time to biodegrade.
- The material can corrode.
- The product cannot be viewed through the packaging as it is not transparent.
- It is more expensive than an alternative plastic material.
How to avoid greenwashing
Greenwashing means that a company has branded something eco-friendly, green or sustainable when this is not the case. This misleads consumers into thinking that they are helping the planet by buying that product, when they are not.
The term greenwashing implies that a company has intentionally deceived the consumer. Many corporations use greenwashing to improve public perception of their brands. The term greenwashing is thought to be a play on the word whitewashing, describing the practice of companies launching adverts and campaigns under the pretence that they are environmentally beneficial, often contradicting their sustainability and environmental record in general.
A company should carefully consider their own claims, policies and values when it comes to the environment. Companies should be as transparent as they possibly can be about their level of sustainability rather than misleading consumers.
This will avoid allegations being made against the company of greenwashing. A company should carefully consider the word sustainable before using it. If the word is being used then you should be able to back this up with targets and figures that back up your claim of being sustainable.
You should only say that something is recyclable if it can be recycled with most councils. If most councils reject a material that you have branded recyclable then this could be labelled as greenwashing.
As a company, it is important to think about where your waste goes and if waste material or broken packaging can be recycled, or if unnecessary packaging can be removed.
While greenwashing is not something new, it has increased over recent years in order to meet consumer demands for environmentally friendly goods and services.
Examples of how companies can use greenwashing and how false claims can be uncovered are:
- Having no proof – A claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible information.
- Vagueness – A claim that is broad or poorly defined and therefore likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.
- Claiming that a product is ‘green’ based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes which doesn’t take into account other important environmental factors.
- A claim that gives the impression of a third party endorsement where none exists.
- A claim which may be truthful but is not relevant when it comes to consumers who are seeking environmentally friendly products.
- A claim that is simply false.
For further reading about greenwashing, please see our knowledge base.
Most countries are now recognising the need to reduce the amount of disposable waste and for this reason are gradually embracing the use of sustainable food packaging.