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Pack it in: how waste awareness is driving big change in food packaging

Pack it in: how waste awareness is driving big change in food packaging

by Ollie Lloyd 26 July 2018

With more and more of us starting to reject things like plastic straws, the spotlight is shining on food packaging like never before. Ollie Lloyd talks to Adam Peyt of CornWare to learn more about eco-friendly alternatives to plastic.

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Here’s an alarming fact: every single piece of plastic ever made is still in existence. That’s close to eight and a half billion tonnes, whether it’s in our bins, cradling the food in our fridges, or, as the case seems to be, floating in an ocean somewhere. Give or take, it’ll need a few hundred years before it starts breaking down. And even when it does, it’s still a hazard to the environment, especially for wildlife which can’t digest it.

Sorry to open on a downer. But it’s the reality we’re waking up to. Perhaps the more worrying thing is how it has taken so long since plastic production began – the 1950s – for us to ask questions about what problems it could ultimately cause.

You will remember the case of the sea turtle and the plastic drinking straw. Since the story went viral, hundreds of UK businesses have snubbed the straw (including, most recently, British branches of Starbucks). It’s good to start somewhere and indicates the wider problem but cynics – perhaps rightfully –will say it’s little more than good PR. After all, since these so-called straw bans, how many times have you gone to a café an been served your drink with a paper straw, but in a plastic cup?

Hear more about CornWare on the FoodTalk podcast

Listen to what Adam Peyt of CornWare has to say about food packaging and waste on the FoodTalk podcast.

There are of course plenty of ways to help re-purpose plastic. From recycling at home (goes to a facility, processed into pellets, eventually re-shaped into something else) right up to building your own village out of discarded bottles (‘one man’s trash is another man’s condo’). But what about reducing or eliminating our reliance on it entirely. If, as recent headlines have alluded to, our waste meant for recycling might not end up in a recycling plant but landfill, perhaps it’s an issue of tackling the root of the problem rather than figuring out what to do with it afterwards.

It starts at home in the kitchen. Our survey of 3,000 Brits and Brits who consider themselves ‘Committed Foodies’ suggests that 82% of us are now actively trying to reduce the amount of plastic we use. But there’s only so much we can do – more of the responsibility falls on producers, manufacturers, and retailers to ditch plastic. That tray holding marinated chicken thighs? That punnet of raspberries? Alternatives do exist, from reinforced virgin fibre paper to water-degradable packaging.

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This year, Iceland was the first big supermarket chain to announce intentions of going plastic-free within the next five years. How will it achieve that? Paper and pulp-based alternatives, it says. Others are looking towards bio-plastics. The starch-based material is almost indistinguishable from standard oil-based plastic, but has not gone through the traditional method of extracting crude oil (not the most environmentally friendly thing) in order to make it, and is entirely biodegradable. Origo, a toxin-free corn starch bio-plastic made by CornWare, is one of them.

‘It’ll be up to a couple hundred days before it’s gone,’ says Adam Peyt, director of CornWare, talking about how long Origo takes to decompose. ‘They will crack and break down. Some of these cups, when in a composting facility, will return back to nature as compost between 19 and 20 days.’

A sure improvement on the 500+ years plastic takes to degrade, and without compromising on the rigidity and durability plastic affords either (something plant-based packaging options suffer from). It’s an idea catching on – Pure, the fast food chain with 14 branches in London, order their cutlery from CornWare. But there’s still a long way to go. If anything, big food companies are put off by the cost of transitioning to an alternative, as well as the cost of the alternative itself.

‘It starts off with a price thing,’ says Adam, ‘but consumers are voting with their wallets now.’ In some cases, the price gap might not be as steep as first thought, with the difference being as little as a penny. ‘We’re talking tiny percentages here on what they’re already spending, and you can make that back in marketing.’

With possible new laws against plastic on the horizon, manufacturers may have little choice but to be more mindful of their packaging. Will they be glad to? We’ve already seen big companies enjoy a bit of good PR. As retailers control virtually everything, the moment they come out and say they’re plastic free, the impact that has on their customers and competitors, and, ultimately, the environment, is huge. Worst case scenario is their consumers won’t realise the difference.

Here’s the thing: people are avoiding products with excess packaging. 67% of Committed Foodies and 50% of the general public in our survey said so. And that figure will only grow. These days, where what we eat comes from is one of the most important conversations you can have around food. If more than a bit late, now the nature of the packaging it’s in is too.

FoodTalk

The FoodTalk Radio Show celebrates the entrepreneurs and artisans working to make the UK's thriving food scene one of the best in the world. Catch a new show every Thursday and find out more by visiting the website.

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