Taking steps to reduce the use of plastic – Berry 2020: Yearbook & Buyers Guide – Mark Tierney

Plastic-free packaging has not been fully embraced by the UK's berry sector ...

Whilst many retailers’ commitments and government policies are focusing on reducing packaging waste – particularly the use of plastic packaging – economic pressures and the popularity of traditional, plastic, punnets mean that plastic-free packaging has not been fully embraced by the UK’s berry sector.

 

A cultural shift

Amidst rising worldwide concerns about the impact that plastic waste is having on our planet, 2019 saw several major UK retailers pledge, or take steps, to reduce their use of plastic packaging. Tesco, for example, announced its plans to remove “one billion pieces of plastic” from its own-brand products in UK stores by the end of 2020.

The announcement was part of the retailer’s 4Rs strategy – to Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – and includes the removal of those small plastic bags commonly used to pack fresh produce products. Similarly, Waitrose – as part of its pledge to make all its own-label packaging reusable or compostable by 2023 – is trailing dedicated “refillable zones” in several stores in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire that include frozen berry “pick and mix” areas. Another of the large retailers, Sainsbury’s, promised to halve the amount of plastic waste in its stores by 2025, including reducing plastic packaging in fruits and vegetables.

Certainly, the UK is experiencing a cultural shift – one that has made sustainable packaging a great consideration for the soft fruit sector. David McCormack, packaging manager for Berry Gardens Growers, reveals: “We continue to work collaboratively with packaging suppliers and customers to source the most sustainable and efficient packaging available whilst maintaining quality. This year, we have assisted in several customer trials including a trial of loose soft fruit within a concept store, allowing customers to select their own and pick straight into a cardboard punnet.”

 

Cost “still the largest factor”

Regardless of retailers’ drive to reduce plastic use, growers and packaging suppliers report that traditional, clear plastic punnets remain the most popular option – even though there are now many plastic alternatives available on the market. Such alternatives include the CKF Earthcycle punnet range, which is top sealable, compostable and recyclable. The design won Bronze at the 2019 Fruit Logistica innovations award and is available in the UK via Produce Packaging. Other alternatives include Evesham Specialist Packaging (ESP) range of pulp board punnets and Saica Pack’s award-winning fresh pack trays made from 100% recycled and recyclable papers.

Nationwide firm Produce Packaging’s (PP) managing director Mark Tierney notes that he has seen a great deal of interest from the smaller retailers and independents, such as organic box delivery schemes and farm shops, for PP’s ranges of compostable and recyclable cellulose punnets and trays as these outlets are much closer to their end users and able to react more quickly to changes to consumer demands.

He adds: “Many of the UK’s multiple retailers have been using our range of Cullen Moulded Fibre trays for decades and this hasn’t really changed. We are, however, surprised that the CKF Earthcycle range of top-sealable punnets has not seen a higher level of interest at multiple retailer level but they (retailers) take longer to make changes and have a higher number of factors to consider. We do also need to remember that many of the plastic punnets and trays used by retailers are produced from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and are also easily recycled by the end user.”

He adds: “I think the UK market has taken a very level-headed approach in reviewing where to move from plastic-based packaging to cellulose-based, the largest factor however is still cost. Where the price difference is negligible the change has been made, where it is more, the supply chain is under such price pressure this has stopped progress.”

Mark also commented that we need to be careful to look at the bigger picture when looking at ‘costs’. “If a packer were to factor in the recent increases in the price of plastic Packaging Recovery Notes (PRN)’s (documents that prove that waste packaging material has been recycled into a new product), and take this into account when looking at costs, the gap between unit prices for plastic compared to cellulose is significantly reduced.”

Mark also notes that changes to packaging materials will also be based on certain key factors – protection, presentation and price. “Fresh produce has to be protected, consumers like to see what they are buying and yet retailers are wary of passing on any increases for packaging to their customers. These factors have resulted in a slow, considered move across the category. There has certainly been less of a swing away from plastic in the UK than in other European countries.”

Working with Moulded Fibre Products (a pulp factory in Scunthorpe), Gloucestershire based Evesham Specialist Packaging (ESP) has been operating in the pulp and moulded fibre sector for more than a decade now. As an alternative to plastic punnets, the firm has developed for the fresh produce sector a heat-sealable (home compostable/recyclable through the paper waste stream) pulp board punnet.

Helpfully, the punnet is fully compatible with current production lines, including the delivery track and any make of heat sealer, including Packaging Automation, Proseal, and Mondini. Yet despite this obvious convenience – and the fact that the product is compostable – the berry sector continues to prefer the firm’s clear plastic punnets and trays. ESP’s managing director Ronan Lynch says: “it’s difficult for the berry sector because of the horticulture industry’s current labour shortage. Making any changes to their business will put their costs up – and, given the current headwind the growers are facing, no one wants to do that at the moment. And so, the pulp top seal punnets are growing, but slower than expected.

Plastic sales are still very strong because it (plastic) does a great job and is easy to handle from the field through to the retailers’ shelves.” ESP offer Pulp footprints in BB36 and BB50, SP70 and SP85 punnets together with a full range of Infia punnets, lidding film and boxes available from stock at all times.

 

A future of reducing and recycling

Fortunately, the industry’s favoured plastic punnets are recyclable and primarily made from recycled PET. They have also been designed to contain as little plastic as possible. David notes: “Reducing packaging material is a constant in the business with many ongoing trials. Plastic reduction in punnets has probably reached its optimum, making the ability to recycle easier a priority. However, as an industry we are actively looking at alternatives – we have used corrugated cardboard in larger packs successfully, with no detrimental effect to fruit quality.” Mark adds that the use of compostable films “hasn’t really taken off yet” due to the lack of ‘end-of-life’ composting options. “This is part of a much larger change needed by government and local authorities. The potential for compostable films to be collected with food waste for use in biodigesters would be the real turning point for this material but is still some way off.” As part of the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy, new consistency in household and business recycling collections is being introduced in the UK by 2023. This incorporates the setting of a standard for every local authority to drive a consistent collection for a core set of materials across the country. This should hopefully ensure that more plastic punnets are recycled, and biodegradable materials composted, in future.

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