Food Strategy Associates Visits the Environmental Packaging Summit

When it comes to food packaging should we focus on carbon emissions or recycling?

There is a lot of effort going into improving recycling rates and taxing plastics which aren’t recycled but is that what we should focus on as we reflect on the outcome for COP27? Do we care about the albatross and the whale, or do we care about the melting glaciers and the forest fires?

The Environmental Packaging Summit in Coventry on 2nd and 3rd November gave us the chance to reflect on both of these huge issues. A good range of speakers from industry and government were being very open about the problems we face in the UK and the uncertain path forward. There was not too much biased corporate-speak and a lot of chewing over how are we going to solve these problems between government and industry. I think we are all frustrated with the turmoil of politics and realise that we cannot expect politicians to solve these things.

So when it comes to the plastic versus carbon question it’s important to realise that they can take us in different directions. Less plastic packaging and/or more recycling will help with the oceans, but in fact plastic packaging is better than aluminium or glass for carbon emissions. Coca Cola Europacific Partners’ (CCEP) Sam Jones explained the differences in grams of CO2 for different bottle types and explained how CCEP have nearly reached the end of the easy routes to reduce carbon with efficiencies. To date, CCEP have achieved a 45% reduction and now need to be more radical to reach their net zero target by 2030 with packaging representing 53% of what’s left. Clover Walton from Faerch, the plastic tray manufacturer, showed how carbon emissions were much more important in the UK than recycling because we release only 0.1% of the world’s plastic into the environment.

Recycling reduces carbon footprint

I came away thinking what is the link? If we improve plastic recycling will we also reduce carbon emissions? Certainly the answer from CCEP on PET was yes. PET bottles with higher recycled content have lower overall carbon emissions. The EPA and DRS measures coming in will therefore help with the quantity of recycled PET in the market and make it more affordable to include a higher proportion of recycled content in packaging. We just have to hope that the civil servants working on these regulations can move them on without too many changes of direction from government.

Now we need consumers, councils and retailers to unlock this

The summit has been useful input to my reflections on improving environmental impact but the bigger issues remain. CCEP say only 47% of consumers think rPET is recyclable. Many councils are not able to take PET trays for recycling – perhaps because they don’t have the sortation tools to distinguish them from PP. Retailers still allow far too many plastic types in the packaging on their shelves even though technical solutions are emerging. Who will help unlock this puzzle?