Plastic – finding the right replacements

Neil Hansford
Industrial Cryogenic and Food Expert
Air Products


Let’s start with a simple truth: we need to end our reliance on single use plastics.  This is, by now, a well-established and accepted fact across the food industry.  From using plastic bags to food packaging, there is a vast amount of plastic packaging in the food industry, and any serious commitment to reducing the environmental impact of our activities will have a reduction in plastics at its heart.

This is already at the forefront of our minds, and something which many companies across the supply chain are making substantial progress with. However, the speed of this progress is, in some ways, doing more harm than good.

A report released by The Green Alliance in January warned that some of the alternatives being introduced are actually having an adverse effect when it comes to environmental impact.  The organisation’s Plastic Promises report acknowledged a concerted effort to move away from plastics, but a lack of thought as to the alternatives being adopted.  For example, paper bags used to package produce and bakery items can have higher carbon impacts, as well as being more difficult to reuse. In addition, some companies have switched to containers they believe to be recyclable, only to discover that in fact they are not, or are recycled only in particular locations.

We are all under pressure to find alternatives to plastics – but the alternatives we find have to be more than just a quick fix.  ‘Greenwashing’, the process of cultivating an environmentally conscious image which is only skin-deep, is becoming an increasing concern across all industries. I don’t believe this is because people don’t care – the urgency we’re adopting just means there’s a lack of understanding of how to make greener processes more effective.  We need to take the time to research and properly consider the correct solutions, otherwise we run the risk of exacerbating other issues.

This isn’t just about environmental concerns, but other key focuses for the food

industry.  Plastics are naturally conducive to the modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) solutions which help us extend shelf life and, therefore, cut food waste.  According to statistics released by Food Aware, 18 million tonnes of food is sent to landfill every year, with around 89% of this created before products even hit the shelves.  The use of MAP, made more effective by plastic packaging, has long been on the front line of the fight against food waste.

Moreover, plastics play a crucial role in the prevention of the spread of bacteria. As summer approaches we will hit the height of the campylobacter season and retailers will take additional measures to guard against the spread of the bacteria. It’s interesting to note that in previous years one way they’ve achieved this has been through double-bagging chickens – a method which has generated positive results.  It’s understandable to see why they would, and may still, do this: while plastic reduction is an important issue, the primary focus of everyone in the food industry is providing a safe product for consumers.

These examples highlight how important it is to find the right replacements for plastic packaging, replacements which don’t exacerbate other issues of importance to us as an industry.  The key to making these changes in the right way lies in thorough research and development which looks at the problem through a wide-angle lens. Bio-degradable polymers, cardboard and higher-grade plastics are all being researched and tested as possible alternatives – but we have to ask ourselves whether they are going to help us improve one problem while making another worse.

For companies like Air Products, this means finding ways to change the gas mixture used in MAP systems to make it more conducive to new forms of packaging.  However, it’s a two-way street, as it’s clear not all packaging is going to be suitable.  Decisions as to which containers are going to be used have to consider their suitability for gas retention and permeability – decisions can’t be made just at a retailer level, they have to consider the whole supply chain.  This highlights a need for greater collaboration within the industry.  If we keep working in silos to solve problems specific to our businesses, we run the risk of exacerbating problems for others.

There’s also a wider point to be made here about our end game. While we must reduce our reliance, the likelihood of a plastic-free industry, at least in the medium-term future, is relatively low.  If that’s the truth, we need more infrastructure to process the higher-grade recyclable plastics which remain. The government has a role to play here – moving towards the use of plastic with the potential to be recycled isn’t enough if we don’t invest in the facilities to do the job.

There are a variety of issues the food industry needs to tackle.  Food safety, food waste, and now, plastic usage, are at the top of that list. There is no sense in improving one at the expense of another. Each of the key issues we face is intertwined, and to truly make progress we have to accept that fact.  It will take collaboration between the supply chain, government and consumers, and a commitment to finding the right long-term solutions if we’re going to achieve that.


Air Products
Tel: 0800 389 0202

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