The food packaging industry is under increasing pressure to become more sustainable, but change will come at a substantial cost to businesses and consumers, and poor choices could have unintended negative consequences.
Therefore, it’s important that decisions are made with a holistic, evidence-led approach, not as a knee-jerk reaction to public pressure. It’s challenging, but those who fail to act will pay the price in consumer backlash and loss of sales.
The desire by consumers to see the end of plastic packaging is the most obvious issue.
Moving to other options such as paper or compostable packaging may seem to solve the immediate issue, but has potential drawbacks such as increased greenhouse gas emissions, threats to food safety and greater pressure on natural resources.
Plastic packaging has devastating, long-term effects on the environment when littered, but has a far lower emissions footprint and draw on resources than some other packaging types, particularly if it is recovered and recycled or reused.
What’s holding us back?
There’s no doubt there is a strong appetite for change in New Zealand, but there are roadblocks to be overcome.
Kerbside recycling collections are available to the vast majority of New Zealanders, but they are not uniform throughout the country in terms of what is collected for recycling. While the current system diverts a considerable amount of material from landfill, the variation from district to district causes confusion for manufacturers as to what constitutes ‘more sustainable packaging’, and for the consumer trying to make good choices.
Accentuating the issue for Kiwis is the lack of a standardised packaging labelling system. You might be aware of, and possibly even understand, the different ‘recycling’ symbols on plastic items (the recycling triangle with a number in it), but these are merely resin codes. They aren’t intended to tell you if an item is accepted for recycling in your area. Specific labelling standards, like those used in Australia, are required.
The standardisation of kerbside recycling and labelling go hand in hand. They are critical for guiding producers and retailers wanting to package food in material which can be recycled nationwide, and for improving recovery rates and reducing recycling contamination.
Fit for purpose
Food packaging essentially serves two purposes – to market the item and to protect the contents and the consumer. The second function is where the greatest risk lies.
Packaging, particularly plastic packaging, is critical to food safety and longevity. In my last article, for example, I mentioned how the much-maligned plastic sleeve on a cucumber increases its shelf life three-fold.
While a ‘past-its-best’ cucumber is unlikely to make you ill, for many products, such as dairy, meat and fish, packaging is vital for food safety. Producers or retailers whose products make consumers sick can suffer irreparable brand damage and loss of business, not to mention the danger or inconvenience to customers. New packaging must be thoroughly tested before it can be rolled out, all of which takes time.
With the climate crisis an ever-growing threat, it would be remiss not to consider carbon emissions from packaging.
Reducing food waste is high on the list of emissions reduction priorities worldwide, to avoid the release of the potent greenhouse gas methane – produced when food decomposes in landfills. We are seeing more organic waste collections and home composting as councils and consumers tackle this. And while there are many factors in reducing food waste, effective packaging certainly plays its part.
At the retail end, unsold or damaged food means a loss of revenue and higher cost to consumers and wasted emissions in the production of that food. The World Resources Institute states, “Around one-quarter of the calories the world produces are thrown away; they’re spoiled or spilled in supply chains; or are wasted by retailers, restaurants and consumers.”
Earlier this year Countdown trialed plastic-free produce aisles at three stores, which resulted in greater food waste and loss of revenue. Countdown’s general manager of corporate affairs Kiri Hannifin says customers appeared to still want a plastic barrier for some fresh produce. With a goal of zero food waste to landfill from its stores by 2025, Kiri says, the company would look to improve the system and try again.
Innovation is happening
Despite the roadblocks, there is an increasing level of innovation taking place. One Hawke’s Bay company, Bostock NZ, has developed a home-compostable bag for their chicken. It also recognises not everyone has a compost heap at home and offers to take the packaging back for free. The bags are used to fertilise the food grown to feed the chickens – an example of product stewardship and the circular economy in action.
In Christchurch, Meadow Mushrooms is developing mushroom punnets made from the stalk waste. The aim is for the packaging to be superior both in terms of keeping the mushrooms fresh for longer and be home compostable.
Growth in reusables
Our throw-away, convenience-led culture is a central issue around sustainable packaging, but change is slowly happening.
The rise of reusable or shared coffee cups, refilleries, and food retailers allowing customers to supply their own container are all steps in the right direction. They also represent business opportunities.
Coffee cup lending company Again Again has seen rapid uptake with 160 cafes around the country using its system since the company launched in November 2018. It recently embarked on a successful crowdfunding drive to raise up to $750,000 in order to broaden its offerings to other food and beverage packaging. Over $330,000 had been raised at the time of going to print.
And then there’s the old-fashioned glass bottle. Hohepa recently switched its 400 litres of milk per day production from plastic to returnable bottles. And Origin Earth offers both its Milk Bottle Refill Service and glass bottle delivery.
Innovation around recycling plastic packaging is critical to providing manufacturers with more options. Northland-based plastic fence post manufacturer Future Post is an example of a Kiwi business turning a plastic type (such as freezer food bags) which previously had no recycling pathway, into a valuable product.
This conversion of products into higher value products after being recycled is essential if New Zealand is to become more sustainable. Recent government moves to increase the waste levy and invest in recycling infrastructure should improve capacity in this sector.
Where to from here?
While there are certainly some exciting innovations, both in terms of the material packaging is made of, and how we use it, it’s important to keep in mind that truly effective changes take time. It must be holistic, with the long-term impacts in mind.
With a standardised kerbside recycling collection system, labelling, further innovation and continued change in consumer behavior, I am confident we are headed in the right direction