Comment: Beware the ‘miracle’ packaging claims

There has been a flurry of ‘green’ packaging claims in recent months, some of which are misleading buyers and consumers, says Martin Kersh.

At the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) we support new technology and innovation. However, our members have reported a number of “miracle” claims being made. The terms that are most concerning are ones like “100% xx-free”, “The first plastic-free cup”, “The first plastic-free coated board’, and “The best-ever green packaging”.

Stating packaging is free of any ingredient really should mean just that, and the presence of a trace is still a trace. Being virtually 100% falls short of 100%.

Of course, it is good to see such a lot of development work, but we must all be sure we never mislead customers or the public. So, here is our advice on how to identify greenwash and ensure that those making claims are 100% accurate.

ASK FOR EVIDENCE. Whenever an operator is presented with packaging making any form of claim they must ask for evidence the claim is valid. This should be in the form of certification – for example, for claims of compostability (there is an EU certification for this, EN13432) or home compostability. Where an international certification doesn’t exist then third-party peer-reviewed evidence is needed. This should cover testing in lab and/or real-life conditions.

IS IT BIODEGRADABLE? Operators should ask how the item biodegrades, under what conditions and over what time period. Will the item simply degrade into small animal bite-size pieces or does it degrade into a mush that animal life can’t eat? Oxo degradable is not acceptable, and the EU is seeking to ban it.

FREE FROM FEARS. Operators should not accept claims that “this material is... plastic-free / only made from material x”. Remember, it is the finished pack that needs to fulfil the claim. This is important because it could include, for example, adhesives to stick the pack together. Claims of “plastic-free” are increasingly being made for the so-called aqueous (water-based) coatings used as alternatives to current polyethylene (PE) linings. However, with some applications plastic is present in order to form the packaging, especially when sealing items containing liquids. When presented with packaging of this type ask for evidence of it being plastic-free.

CARBON CLAIMS. Claims are also made for materials with a lower carbon footprint than other packaging. That may be true of the material but may not be true of the finished pack. Carbon is expended in the factory when converting the material to packaging as well as when transporting the material to the factory and from there to the wholesaler.

CREDIBLY SUSTAINABLE CARD. Claims for being sourced from “sustainable forests” must be accompanied by the correct certification such as FSC or PEFC. All paper-based packaging must meet EU timber regulations requiring a chain of custody covering the tree from which the paper is derived.

TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE? All packaging used for food must meet food material contact regulations. Certification for this must be made available. If you are offered packaging that is very cheap relative to regular prices, you should question why. Have corners been cut? Unfortunately, not all packaging is checked at the border when entering the UK.

BE AWARE OF AMBIGUITY. Do not accept claims of “this pack is greener than other packs” or “produced from sustainable sources” or “environmentally friendly packaging”. Such claims are too vague and need to be certified.

BIOPLASTICS ARE PLASTIC. Never accept a claim that bioplastic is plastic-free. Bioplastics are polymers just like plastic – the difference is that they are not derived from fossil-based sources, but this does not make them plastic-free. Packaging solutions derived from other materials, like bamboo, frequently make claims of being plastic-free. You need to ensure the packaging is accompanied by evidence to confirm the fibres have not been bound together by using plastics or plastic derivatives.

FPA CODE OF PRACTICE. All members of the FPA operate to a strict Code of Practice regarding the making of claims. In the event of a claim being made that may fall foul of the above, the FPA operates a procedure to ensure the claim is withdrawn.

Martin Kersh is executive director at the Foodservice Packaging Association.

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