26 May 2014

Food packaging - time to reuse more?


Where I live, in England, our council provides a pretty comprehensive recycling service - food waste is taken weekly, and mixed recycling (glass, paper, plastics, etc.) every other week.  When I look at what I do have to put in the 'evil black bin', destined for landfill, the vast majority of this seems to be food packaging.  It's not a lot in volume terms at all, which is testament to my well-drilled household and the council facilities... but it's not zero.  Are there additional steps which either myself, my food retailer, or the food/packaging manufacturer/producer can do, to help me get closer to improve my 'food packaging footprint'?

Waste Hierarchy

The 'waste hierarchy' is not perfect (more on that in another post soon!), but serves a useful purpose for this blog:


Waste Hierarchy

It suggests that ideally, we'd prevent the use of packaging where possible, then minimise its use, then reuse, recycle, and eventually, if it can't be burned for energy, send to landfill.  


WRAP continue to provide the industry with a series of voluntary agreements which support a range of initiatives aligned to the waste hierarchy's philosophy, via the Courtauld Commitment.

The importance of packaging

Food packaging serves a number of purposes:
  • protecting the food from physical damage (e.g. an egg box) 
  • preventing contamination (e.g. vacuum-sealed meat packaging)
  • storage (e.g. a yoghurt pot)
  • convenience (e.g. bag of rice)
Without such packaging, we would see a significant increase in food waste throughout the supply chain, probably a larger sustainability problem than dealing with the end-packaging.  The classic example of this is the shrink-wrapped cucumber.

There are already responsibilities placed on the food packaging producers to minimise packaging where possible, and progress is being made.  Personally, I'm still not convinced about Easter Eggs, with Sainsbury's trialling dedicated recycling facilities earlier this year.

Recycling packaging

I mentioned earlier that my council will happily take mixed recycling (it saves them - and therefore indirectly my council tax bill - on paying landfill tax), which means a lot of food packaging is recyclable:
  • Plastic milk bottles
  • Cans (baked beans, etc.)
  • Card (egg boxes, frozen fish boxes, cereal, etc.)
  • Tetra-pak cartons, e.g. fruit juices [not all councils support this yet]
Retailers are helping us, the consumer, understand more about what is recyclable, with much improved labeling, e.g. here's the range of labels which M&S use, based on WRAP's work.


Reusing packaging - the untapped opportunity?

Between prevention/minimisation of food packaging, and recycling is reuse... and this is where I wonder if more could be done?  So, before it enters the recycling loop, the packaging is reused as many times as practically, and cost effectively, as possible.

The British consumer is starting to get used to using less single-use carrier bags, with various initiatives taking-place, either:

This means more and more households are prepared to go shopping, taking a few bags with them...  But could we see a future, where consumers see some of their food packaging as being equally reusable?  There are three models to consider:

a.) Packaging for immediate refill at shop

In this model, rather than taking just their empty canvas bags to the shops, the consumer also takes some selective packaging, which they're happy to use as a receptacle for refilling at an in-store dispenser.  This could be the same packaging for the product, or another container.  It's a very similar concept to a trial which Asda ran for their fabric conditioner, in collaboration with WRAP.

b.) Packaging for return (then later reuse) at shop

This is where packaging is taken to a shop for re-use at a later date, by another consumer.  The packaging would need to be sterilised and checked, either on-site, or at a central location, much like there used to be a monetary rebate for bringing back glass bottles.

c.) Packaging for return as part of home delivery

Much like option 'b' above, as one's shopping is delivered at home, the van-driver is able to collect packaging, for cleaning and reuse, not for recycling.


Heinz Fridge Pack





Reusable Cereal Container (Source: Lakeland)
Egg Box (Sainsbury's)

Of course there are lots of practical considerations, e.g. contamination liabilities, spillage at 'disposal stations', needing to print updated 'use by' dates, and ensuring it's cost effective compared to simple recycling.  It's a classic piece of Service Design, but I expect the challenges are easier to overcome than the perceived barriers of self checkouts, which are now commonplace.  With the right incentives in-place (discounts, rebates, Nectar points, etc.), might this work?  

Finally, where a supervisor is required at a food dispensing station, would this provide an excuse for a conversation - great for some parts of society who are lonely and crave the social interaction, plus a good excuse to reinforce the brand?

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