This year is being hailed by some as a crucial year for action on climate change, with government, businesses and the public all committed to reducing carbon footprints. What does this renewed sense of environmental purpose mean for the future of packaging in the frozen sector?
Frozen food packaging needs to tick a number of boxes. It must of course protect the product from spoilage and moisture. It must also be easy to fill, seal and store. It must be made from food-grade substrates and resistant to grease, oil, and water. Additionally, since frozen food products can expand up to 9% during the freezing process, packaging materials need to be strong and flexible enough to accommodate this.
But arguably the most difficult criteria to fulfil, and one which will become increasingly important in the coming years, is that it must be sustainable.
Frozen food packaging often includes cardboard, laminated paper, and flexible and rigid plastic materials, but each comes with its own sustainability challenge.
Shrink film – a plastic film commonly made from polyethylene, polyolefin or poly-vinyl-chloride – is one of the most popular types of frozen food packaging. While technically many films can be recycled, the collection, separation and reprocessing of household plastic film is not widely implemented in the UK
In 2017, only 67 local authorities in the UK provided kerbside collections of films out of 391. Consequently, end markets for the recycled material is limited. Although collection of plastic films is available at some front-of-store collection points, some films simply cannot be recycled, for example if they are too contaminated with leftover food.
Other types of flexible plastic packaging, such as laminated pouches and bags, are not currently recycled at all in the UK.
Cardboard is another commonly-used frozen packaging material, and a deceptively innocent one in terms of recycling. However, frozen food boxes are required to have a coating of plastic to protect them from low temperatures. As is generally the case with mixed-materials packaging, individually the materials used to make frozen-food boxes are recyclable, but they are layered in such a way that it is difficult to separate them during the recycling process.
Wax-coated cardboard is another mixed-material packaging product similar to, and often confused with, poly-coated paperboard. Like poly-coated paperboard, wax-coated cardboard is difficult to recycle.
Aluminium foil trays are still sometimes used in frozen food packaging. While the metal itself is widely collected and simple to recycle if clean, foil pans often feature cardboard or waxed coated cardboard toppers, which cannot.
The microwave-friendly alternative is plastic trays, which like flexible plastics, are not collected for recycling in all parts of the UK. Even where they are, these trays are problematic. They are often black to give products a more premium feel, and because the colour cannot be identified by automatic sorting machines they often end up in landfill.
Of course, frozen brands can boost their environmental credentials by using recycled materials for packaging, but it is difficult to get food-grade recycled plastic, which must be made from >99% food contact raw material. For this to be produced in the UK, a technically and commercially viable automated solution is needed to separate packaging that has been used with food from that which has not.
Even brands using sustainable packaging solutions need to be careful when making sustainability claims.
Recipe box brand Gousto was recently found to have breached adverting standards by claiming its delivery packaging was ‘100% plastic free and recyclable’, even though it contained an ice pack made from low-density polyethylene, which only around 20% of local authorities have the facilities to recycle from household waste.
Nevertheless, finding sustainable packaging solution is an ever more important consideration as consumers increasingly care about the sustainability of the products they buy.
According to results of a survey from Accenture, more than half of consumers would pay more for sustainable products designed to be reused or recycled. The survey of 6,000 consumers in 11 countries across North America, Europe and Asia, found that while consumers remain primarily focused on quality and price, 83% believe it’s important or extremely important for companies to design products that are meant to be reused or recycled.
Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they’re currently buying more environmentally friendly products than they were five years ago, and 81% said they expect to buy more over the next five years.
In response many businesses are taking decisive action. Tesco recently announced it had removed one billion pieces of plastic in the past 12 months. Measure included ditching the small plastic bags used to gather loose fruits and vegetables and cutting shrink wrap from branded and own-label items.
Tesco officials say the plastic-elimination initiative is based on a four-pillar strategy – Remove, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
Similarly, Birds Eye is closer to achieving its sustainability targets after moving to recyclable packaging on its Natural Vegetable products. The update will remove 379 tonnes of plastic and is the first step in ensuring all the brand’s vegetable lines will have recyclable packaging.
But what if the long term solution doesn’t include traditional plastics at all? Next time we’ll look at some of the alternatives to plastic packaging that could make sustainable choices easier for frozen food brands.