Tag Archives: plastic

Biodegradable Plastic Packaging – 5 things you need to know

If you use plastic packaging, carriers or cutlery to give to your customers it is tempting to use biodegradable versions.  These can be a good idea, but only in the right circumstances. Read on to find out why;

1. Biodegradable plastics don’t necessarily break down in the sea, on land or in landfill. There are 2 main kinds of biodegradable plastics for packaging – compostable and oxo-degradable.  Compostables have to be processed in specific conditions for them to break down, and there is currently doubt over the effectiveness of oxo-degradables.

 

2. Compostable plastics – are usually made from natural sources – like corn starch or cellulose from wood. They are often used for carrier bags, disposable cutlery and bags for food waste where councils collect it.  Most of these will only break down in an industrial composter, or an anaerobic digester, which operates at temperatures of around 60°C.   These can be identified with the symbol above with the code EN13432.  More details available here .   Unless you / your customers have access to an industrial composting waste stream, these materials could be doing more harm than good – at best they will either be incinerated or stay intact in landfill.  At worst they could decompose in landfill releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, or end up contaminating the plastics recycling stream.  Green-field music festivals are a good example of where compostable items can work as they have complete control over their waste management.  (Vegware have this sorted)

 

Home compostability logo

3. Home Compostable plastics – are the same as the industrially compostable plastics above, but will compost at lower temperatures, so in theory you can put them in your compost heap. I’d love to hear from anyone that does this – my garden is too small for a compost heap!

4. Compostable plastics decompose to water, carbon dioxide or methane and a very small amount of biomass . Very little of the original material is left behind as compost.  Composting of plastics is really just a way to make them disappear, a slow version of incineration!  (although the methane can be captured from anaerobic digestion and used as fuel)

 

Oxo-biodegradable plastic bag on a beach in 2011.

5. Oxo-degradable plastics (or oxo-biodegradable plastics) – are standard oil-based plastics, like Polythene, which have an additive included.  The additive makes the plastic fragment into smaller pieces over time.  In theory, these smaller fragments can then be digested by micro-organisms.  However, in November 2017, 150 organisations including Greenpeace and WWF endorsed a statement from Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy that recommends putting a hold on using this kind of plastic until it has been proven that these particles do not accumulate in ecosystems. You can read the report here .  Naturally the Oxo-biodegradable plastics association refute this.  My experience is that they take a long time to break up in the environment – the photo above shows a carrier bag I found on a beach in March 2011 – it had been around long enough for the ink to fade, but not for the bag to break up (the retailer in question no longer uses this technology).  (By the way if you have stored something in one of these bags over the last few years check up on it – they make a real mess when they start to flake!)

The points discussed above don’t mean we should stop looking into biodegradable plastics, far from it, but the method of disposal needs to be considered before making claims about the benefit to the environment.  Ideally in a few years there will be no public demand for biodegradable packaging as all of it will be captured and reprocessed before entering the environment as part of a circular economy!

Do you use biodegradable packaging? Do you compost at home?  Do you think all plastic packaging should be biodegradable? Let me know your experiences in the comments section below.

To see how I can help your business grow, check out the case studies and services provided pages on my website. For more information, contact me here, call me on 07826 791 045 or subscribe to my monthly newsletter

The Big Plastics Debate – Who Won?

The Packaging Innovations show at the NEC, held at the end of February could, at a pinch, be described as the Glastonbury of the packaging world.  Alongside supplier exhibits, there are plenty of opportunities to meet up with colleagues and attend talks and discussions from professionals in the industry. 

 The BBC’s Blue Planet, the UK Government’s 25 year plan and Iceland Foods’ announcement that they intend to go plastic free on their own brand products by 2023 has ignited an enormous amount of debate throughout both industry and the general public.

Rightly so, the Packaging Innovations organisers, Easyfairs leapt on this opportunity and planned as the headline event ‘The Big Plastics Debate’ a session of talks and a panel discussion with key industry players.

Martin Kersh from the Foodservice Packaging Association spoke on legislation.   The stand out points for me were;

  • The Packaging Industry’s frustration with the public’s understanding of the issues (using the anti-straw campaign as an example),
  • A call for legislation reform to encourage the incorporation of recycled material into packaging, and
  • For all brand owners to join a packaging waste compliance scheme, not just those above a certain turnover.

Ian Schofield shared Iceland’s vision for their own brand products.  The retailer says they have listened to their customers and by eliminating plastic are giving them what they want.  Interestingly he is avoiding the use of bioplastics marketed as compostable or biodegradable.   He acknowledged that it wouldn’t always be easy, but Iceland have made a strong statement of intent and they are sticking with it.

The discussion panel, which took questions from the floor included Ian Ferguson from the Co-op,  Nick Brown from Coca-Cola and Kevin Vyse from M&S.   Slightly disappointingly, it was a very well mannered affair.  You can view the whole session here on youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Zib38FsFjU

 

So who won the debate?

Interestingly the retailers and brand-owners seemed to have more in common than differences.   They all (naturally) want to keep food waste to a minimum, in which plastic plays an important part, move away from plastic where possible and increase the recyclability and recycled content of the plastics they are left with – Iceland’s first step for frozen food bags is to move away from laminates to more easily recycled monolayers;  Coca-Cola intend to dramatically increase the use of recycled content of their bottles over the coming years.

In summary, it was an interesting couple of hours.   It would have been good to see more variety in the panel – maybe someone from Surfers Against Sewage or Friends of the Earth and the British Plastics Federation who have been very vocal on the subject , but it was a good start, and it will be interesting to see how much progress has been made this time next year.

Do you think the packaging industry is doing enough to combat plastic waste? Add your comments below.

If you need help to reduce plastic packaging from your products, contact me to find out how I can help or call me on 07826 791 045.

You can join my mailing list for general information on packaging (emails sent out about once a month)

Sarah

Fresh cucumbers

Do cucumbers really need to be shrink-wrapped?

Retailers are under enormous pressure to eliminate plastic packaging altogether.  Do cucumbers really need to be shrink-wrapped with plastic?  Read on to find out…

OK, so most people know that if you keep a cucumber wrapped it will stay fresher for longer.  If you are curious like me about by how much, here is an easy experiment you can do at home to see what difference the plastic shrink-wrap makes;

 

Experiment

Get hold of 2 cucumbers of similar size and the same best before date.  Weigh them both using kitchen scales and remove the shrink-wrap from one and weigh the packaging.  Put both cucumbers in the fridge and continue weigh every day (more often if you like) until the best-before date.  On the best before date, weigh the cucumbers one final time, take a slice from each and taste.  (For one way to use up your cucumbers at the end of the experiment, try this recipe for cucumber soup from Delia)

Cucumber being weighed

Cucumber being weighed

Here are my results, weight of the cucumber plotted vs time;

Weights of wrapped and unwrapped cucumbers vs. time in home fridge at 4°C

Weights of wrapped and unwrapped cucumbers vs. time in home fridge at 4°C

The wrapped cucumber lost just 1g during the testing period, the unwrapped 12g – 3.5% of its total weight on the day of purchase (day 0) on the graph above. The unwrapped cucumber was still fresh but less crunchy than the wrapped cucumber.

 

What does this mean?

Shrink-wrap isn’t just a barrier to moisture-lossAfter harvest all fresh produce continues to respire (breath) – its carbohydrate reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere and releases carbon dioxide and water (see here for more info).  Shrink-wrapping reduces the amount of oxygen available so the cucumber’s respiration rate slows down, less water is lost and it stays fresh for longer.  (Note a number of factors also affect the respiration rate – the variety, ripeness of the cucumber when picked, wax coatings and storage conditions). 

These particular cucumbers came from Greece, so were picked, wrapped and labelled in Greece, loaded onto a truck, travelled 2000 miles including a trip over the sea to a UK distribution centre and then from the UK DC to the local stores.  This can’t take any less than 2 days.  Even with temperature controlled transport the temperature the cucumbers are kept at will vary. In many cases (as with these) they are sold and stored at room temperature, so respiration and water-loss will be greater during the time they are on sale.   The shrink also physically protects the fruits from damage during transit.

OK, so the home-experiment above was just a bit of fun (yes I know, I need to get out more). However, the Co‑op, regarded as one of the greener supermarket retailers for packaging, performed a rigorous trial across the whole supply chain in 2012.  Their trials showed that the shrink-wrap prevented waste by two-thirds (See this article from Sky News). Extensive scientific research has also been performed – see this report from the Journal of Food Science and Technology.

 

So what next?

Just 2g of plastic means that a cucumber can be as fresh on its best before date as on the day it was purchased, not to mention the protection it provides during a 2000 mile journey to our fridges.  This doesn’t mean the industry should not act in order to reduce plastic usage, but until they find a workable solution, the best thing we as consumers can do is to keep the pressure on retailers to reduce plastic packaging where they can.  What about the wrappers on soap bar and tinned tuna multi-packs – are they really necessary?

If you are a brand owner and want help in removing plastic packaging from your products contact me for advice or call +44 (0) 7826 791 045

Subscribe to my newsletter to find out more about packaging in general.

In the meantime I’m off to eat some cucumber soup!

Chilled cucumber soup in a teacup