Pack it in! Options for reducing plastic use

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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 remain an important part of the food supply chain. 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 the meat industry?

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% 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% 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.

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 ecologically but visible and positive changes to packaging could also help to reassure customers in their purchasing decisions.

To read more about reducing plastic use, including opportunities for the dairy industry, click here.

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Zoe Avison, Trainee Analyst

Zoe.Avison@ahdb.org.uk, 024 7647 8811