Most plastic food packaging will have the word ‘recyclable’ on it, but this doesn’t necessarily always mean the packaging will be recycled. The actual process of recycling multi-material packaging can be time-consuming and expensive and relies heavily on consumer behavior and collection segregation. Many food products use a mix of packaging materials, for example, microwaveable meals in supermarkets will use card, clear film, and black plastic, not all of which can be recycled. Even if they could, the actual process of recycling them would require the consumer to separate the materials so that the plastics can be reprocessed separately from the card. It’s not always necessary to use all three materials, and food brands can easily make a move toward adopting simplified forms of packaging, which use just one or two materials. This has seen many brands, including Waitrose, invest in innovative alternatives, such as its fiber-based ready meal tray which has purpose-made coating – simplifying its packaging to make it easier to recycle while moving away from the use of black plastic.
Tackling Black Plastic
Black plastic, in general, is an area where food brands can instantly improve the sustainability of their packaging. The reason for black plastic’s use over clear options are primarily aesthetic, but this type of plastic is a challenge to recycle with current technology. The black carbon pigments can’t be detected by the machines that sort plastics for recycling, meaning that recyclable material can only be diverted to energy from waste facilities or landfill. In most cases, there is no reason that the food packaging couldn’t be switched to alternative colors, which are more easily identifiable, meaning they could be more widely recycled, supported by the existing global infrastructure.
Harnessing the Benefits of Card and Alternative Materials
Although recycling facilities and the materials that can be recycled vary from country to country (and often even within countries), card and paper packaging can be recycled everywhere. Paper and card is the most recycled material in the world, and the only requirement for consumers is to ensure that the paper and cardboard they collect for recycling isn’t contaminated by food, or other recyclable streams like plastic, metals, or glass. As a result, 84.6% of all paper and cardboard packaging is currently recycled in Europe – the highest recycling rate of any material stream – compared to only 40.9% of plastic, which all too often ends up in the ocean.
Moving completely away from plastic won’t always be feasible or desirable in the food industry, but brands should look to adopt card and paper into their packaging strategies where possible, to use existing recycling infrastructure and help remove excess waste in the supply chain.
A trend which looks set to continue in the food sector is the move towards alternative packaging materials. Paper-based fiber molds are now a popular substitute for plastic packaging and, although not widely available, products such as wood-based fiber bottles are starting to be produced as an alternative to plastic. Carlsberg, for instance, has recently unveiled a new design for a recyclable fiber-based beer bottle, while fiber-based egg cartons offer a simple switch for plastic containers.