Pack it in! Options for reducing plastic use in meat and dairy

Monday, 11 June 2018

A recent survey by insights agency Delineate revealed that plastic waste was as big a concern amongst British adults as Brexit. Although in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, plastic has helped to reduce food waste and will continue to remain an important part of the food supply chain.  However, there are opportunities for meat and dairy to move with shifting public opinion and improve their green credentials, making visible changes to packaging that give consumers confidence in their purchasing decisions.

As major supermarkets and food manufacturers sign up to the UK Plastics Pact and pledge to tackle plastic waste, where do the challenges and opportunities lie for meat and dairy?

MEAT

Meat packaging has stringent requirements for hygiene and atmosphere control. Packaging needs to be hermetically sealed to prevent oxygen and water vapour transfer that leads to spoilage or discoloration of meat. AHDB/YouGov research has also highlighted the need for meat packaging to be transparent - 29 per cent of meat or poultry buyers/consumers say they like to see the product before they buy.

Reduce

At the moment, fresh meat is commonly sold in rigid plastic trays with film lids sealed to the rim. This allows manufacturers to carefully control the mixture of gases within the packaging and extend the shelf life of the product. To extend product life, WRAP recommends exploring the use of vacuum skin packaging where the product is held on a tray and a film vacuum sealed over the top.

By changing from a large tray to vacuum-seal packaging, in 2013 Sainsbury’s reduced packaging weights on Taste the Difference beef joints by 15 per cent and extended the product life by 50%. Waitrose has also pioneered alternative meat packaging, particularly with mince, which is now sold in flow wrap packs, reducing the amount of plastic needed by half. Dubbed ‘snip and slide’ packs, they may also satisfy squeamish customers who don’t like to touch raw meat. Sainsbury’s has recently launched a tear-and-tip chicken pouch, intended to appeal to the same demographic. These pouches have the added benefit of using less plastic than conventional chicken packaging.

Reuse

Morrison’s has announced it will allow customers to bring their own containers when purchasing meat and fish from its Market Street counters. While this is likely to remain a small part of the market, it may help to attract plastic-conscious consumers.

Recycle

Creating meat packaging from a mixture of different films and rigid plastics is currently convenient but can make recycling confusing for the customer who won’t usually know their HDPE from their PET. Manufacturers can help by simplifying the mix of polymers they use and switching to widely recycled materials. The Co-op and Marks & Spencer are both exploring single-polymer packaging as a way of making their products easier to recycle.

DAIRY

Reduce

Both Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have trialled selling milk in a plastic bag, as seen commonly in Canada, India and other countries. The milk bag is designed to be stored in a reusable jug in the customer’s fridge and uses 75% less plastic than a conventional plastic milk bottle. However, Waitrose experienced disappointing sales and neither retailer currently stocks milk bags. 

Reuse

Glass milk bottles have been hitting the headlines recently, but milk sold on the doorstep accounts for less than 3% of volumes sold and is more than twice the price of milk sold through the top four multiples (Kantar World Panel, 52 weeks ending 25 Mar 18). As it stands, supermarkets and hard discounters are unlikely to be toppled as the biggest channel for liquid milk.
Dairy use out of home is substantial, particularly in coffee shops. Disposable coffee cups are not easily recyclable because of their plastic lining, but ministers have rejected proposals for a compulsory 25p ‘latte levy’ on every cup sold. Instead, many major coffee brands have voluntarily offered discounts to customers bringing their own cups. In London, Starbucks is currently trialling a 5p charge per disposable cup and have reported a 150 per cent increase in the use of reusable cups, only six weeks into the three-month trial.

Image of reusable coffee cups with Department of Dairy Related Scrumptious Affairs branding

Recycle

According to a report published by WRAP in 2011, 120,000 tonnes of high density polyethylene (HDPE) were required to produce approximately 3 billion plastic milk bottles per year in the UK. By 2014 it was reported that around 30% of this was recycled material rHDPE which has a slightly green tint because of pigments from bottle labels and lids.

Mixing a substantial amount of rHDPE with virgin HDPE makes a green tinted milk bottle, which retailers say is unacceptable to consumers. But is this still strictly true?
The Co-Op recently announced it was switching all of its own-brand water bottles to 50% recycled material. The new bottles will be darker and cloudier than normal water bottles but the Co-Op has described this as a ‘badge of honour’, tapping into the wider public consciousness about plastics.

Liquid milk has historically struggled with differentiation in the category - could a green-tinged bottle provide a point of interest for environmentally concerned consumers? After all, Wonky Veg has been successfully launched by a number of retailers, despite conventional wisdom on customers’ demands.

Image showing rHDPE i

Wrap up

It’s important to remember the usefulness of plastic in our food system. It is lightweight, prolongs shelf life and helps to keep our food hygienic; eliminating all plastic is unrealistic and could have unintended consequences. However, there are options for further optimising packaging and improving recycling rates. Many major food and drink businesses have already signed up to the UK Plastics Pact, led by WRAP, recognising their part to play in tackling plastic pollution. This makes sense environmentally but visible and positive changes to packaging could also help to reassure customers in their purchasing decisions.