Plastic pollution crisis requires “holistic” approach, advises expert group


22 May 2018 --- The food and beverage industry can minimize the high levels of plastic pollution generated through single-use packaging by adopting a cohesive approach that openly acknowledges the complexity of the issue, according to Sagentia, a Science Group company. The company has released a white paper, “Breaking up with plastic”, outlining a three-phase technical framework to facilitate the reduction of plastic packaging.

Simon Norman, one of the paper’s authors and Applied Science Consultant at Sagentia, speaks to FoodIngredientsFirst about the causes of global plastic waste and proposes solutions:

“Plastic waste has been an issue for some time, partly fueled by consumer demand for convenience, which has led to a throwaway culture. But in recent years, consumer and regulatory awareness of the issue, and its repercussions on the environment have increased.”

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Simon Norman, Applied Science Consultant at Sagentia

“It’s very complex as plastic packaging may do much more than simply ‘contain’ a product. For instance, in a food and beverage context, it can play an intrinsic role in the preservation of food from both shelf-life and physical protection standpoints. There is no quick and easy solution.”

“Instead, the industry needs to move towards reducing single-use plastic one step at a time. A good place to start is ‘red-lining’ plastic reduction or recyclability at the front-end of product development. Making it a core characteristic or requirement focuses the attention of R&D teams. In some cases, this may lead to food and drink products being supplied in innovative and alternative ways. There is potential in ‘refillable’ business models to change how we use packaging – look at the drive towards reusable coffee cups rather than disposable ones,” adds Norman.

In a move to help the industry tackle these problems, scientists and engineers across the whole of Science Group have been working on solutions. These involve science, materials, regulation, design, compatibility across different industries and true multi-faceted innovation.

The three-phase framework as defined in the white paper:
1.    Collaborative front-end running: Interdepartmental front-end planning is a critical first step, combined with an understanding of the important multifunctional role plastic often plays. Without a deeply-rooted and integrated approach, gaps in the ability to replace, reduce or reengineer plastic packaging will remain unclosed. Consequently, plastic reduction initiatives will fail to properly address the issue.
2.    Scoping out the technical role of plastic: It’s only by understanding the full technical requirements of packaging – from point of manufacture to point of consumption – that alternatives can be discovered and properly tested. In circumstances where plastic packaging is deemed necessary, it could be redesigned to perform the same important functions without compromising recyclability. Avoiding multi-material laminates and polyethylene linings on paper or card would be a good place to start.
3.    Considerate design: Successful design strikes an effective balance between empathy and reason. When designing plastic packaging, this can manifest itself in many ways. It’s important to consider the ripple effects of each decision on the plastic reduction journey. This includes impacts at various stages of the product lifecycle, with different stakeholders and audience segments.

In recent times, companies big and small have moved to eradicate some single-use plastics entirely, such as straws and drink stirrers. Norman feels that eradication of single-use plastics should be judged on a case-by-case basis:

“In some circumstances, it may be possible to completely eradicate single-use plastic from food and beverage applications or replace non-recyclable plastics one-for-one with sustainable alternatives. However, it needs to be considered on a case by case basis. And the full end-to-end supply chain, from raw materials to manufacture to distribution to consumption needs to be taken into account.”

“Right now, a huge research effort is ongoing to develop sustainable, recyclable and biodegradable plastics alternatives, but we also need to challenge the fundamental assumptions that lead to usage of single-use plastics, enabling other materials to be employed.”

The research conducted at Sagentia pinpoints, inter-company, inter-industry and cross-industry collaboration as a solution to the excessive use of single-use plastics:

“We believe that this issue cannot be tackled effectively by individual teams working in isolation,” says Norman. “Within a company, different teams should collaborate – so you might see consumer insight specialists and product developers working with manufacturing and logistics teams. This helps ensure that the role of plastic – and the potential impact of alternatives – is fully understood throughout the product cycle. Roadmapping is likely to be a major facilitator for companies that want to boost cohesion and break new ground with their plastic reduction strategies.”

“However, we also think there is a need for inter-industry and even cross-industry approaches to tackle the more challenging aspects of plastic waste reduction. It is such a far-reaching issue and the use of plastic is so deeply embedded within supply chains that it’s going to take a concerted and collaborative effort to tackle the problem at scale.”

Norman adds: “It’s important to acknowledge the benefits of plastic and appreciate the tasks it performs. From this vantage point, it’s possible to interrogate the demands placed on packaging to ascertain whether they can be relaxed or met in different ways. Do consumers really need fruit juice with a two-month shelf life, or meat that’s good in the fridge for ten days? Will alternative packaging materials harm safety or the overall experience of the product?”Click to Enlarge

“The task is difficult, but not insurmountable. And it can be embedded with wider business strategies. As shopping habits evolve and personalization demands escalate in the digital age, many food and beverage manufacturers will need to reinvent their offering. This is an opportunity to develop alternative models that are less reliant on single-use plastic,” he concludes.

The white paper can be read in full here.

By Joshua Poole

This feature is provided by FoodIngredientsFirst's sister website, PackagingInsights.

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