How do you encourage consumers to adopt reusable packaging systems? When are they most willing to reuse and why? What materials should the packaging be made of? And what are the environmental benefits of reuse versus single-use?
All questions that often leave foodservice companies scratching their heads. But worry no more: experts from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield have just received funding to answer these and more.
Their project, “Many happy returns – enabling reusable packaging systems”, is one of 10 university-led research projects that will receive £8m in funding as part of UK Research and Innovation’s Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging (SSPP) Challenge.
Speaking to Footprint on Thursday ahead of the project team’s first meeting, Sarah Greenwood, packaging technology leader at the Centre said the aim is to publish guidelines for companies that want to move to reusables so they can choose which system to use, the best materials for the packaging and the most effective ways to promote it.
Greenwood admitted the project is ambitious but the work will be critical in encouraging wider uptake of reusables across the food sector.
There are also industry partners. Major supermarket chains will be involved, as well as key players in the packaging sector. But as yet there are no representatives from foodservice or hospitality. “We are still open to other project partners coming forward,” she said.
Foodservice is heavily reliant on the low price, convenience and availability of single-use packaging. Companies have introduced some reusable systems, with discounts to customers bringing reusable coffee cups for example. However, as detailed in a report by Footprint last year, many of the schemes lack scale and consistency.
The strength of the new project is in its multi-disciplinary approach – from linguistics and social science experts to life cycle analysis boffins, Greenwood said.
There will also be research on the best materials to use in reusable packaging. “We shouldn’t necessarily stick to the standardised pallet of packaging materials,” she explained. “Those materials were formulated and blended to be perfect for single-use.”
Loughborough University will also deliver a project focused on circular business models in the takeaway sector. The team will look at how to combine smart technology enabled products and services to reduce the environmental, societal, and economic impact of food packaging.
The SSPP Challenge aims to establish the UK as a “leading innovator” in smart and sustainable plastic packaging for consumer products. The next round of funding, the Future Plastic Packaging Solutions competition, is now open to applications, with funding available up to £150,000.
The other projects to be funded are:
University of Strathclyde. The project aims to optimise the use of compostable plastics for multiple food packaging applications. This will reduce the reliance on plastic and encourage reusing plastics as much as possible while keeping food fresh and hygienic.
The University of Manchester. The “One bin to rule them all” project aims to improve compliance with recycling through a systemic approach to plastic waste management. The project aims to demonstrate a viable system to reduce and then eliminate plastic released in the environment. It will do this by creating value in plastic packaging waste streams and simplifying recycling for consumers.
Brunel University, London. This project will address the problem of ‘hard-to-recycle’ plastic packaging and aim to create new management of waste streams, so high value, ‘food grade’ materials and non-food grade plastics are kept separate.
University College London. This project will investigate how compostable plastics are currently being used and seek to map out how these plastics can be introduced and integrated into existing waste management infrastructure.
City, University of London. This research project will expand and enhance the Household Simulation Model to focus on plastic food packaging to help manufacturers provide the right type of packaging to reduce both food and plastic waste.
University of Lancaster. The “Plastic packaging in peoples’ lives” project aims to fundamentally shift behaviours around food plastic packaging. Focusing on how plastic packaging is embedded in consumers’ lives, the project will undertake a holistic examination of the packaging supply chain to close the attitude-behaviours gap in consumers’ approaches to plastic use and waste.
The University of Liverpool. This project aims to understand how the single-use plastic used for milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and piping changes during recycling. The project uses this knowledge to improve the post-consumer recycled plastic journey, blending them with virgin plastics to make new packaging. This change will result in less plastic waste, increased sustainability and less harm to the environment.
University of Cambridge. The “Smart sustainable plastic packaging from plants” project will research into changing the genetic code of plants or blend with other materials from food or agricultural waste. The aim is to engineer materials with new functional properties, such as improved strength or better protection, reducing the volume of plastic packaging needed to keep food fresh.