Reusable revolution puts packaging industry in a spin

The FPA’s environment seminar made for uncomfortable listening for some members, but by addressing the question of whether the future is in reusable packaging the industry has shown an openness to change, writes Nick Hughes.

‘To reuse or single use – that is the question.’

The very fact the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) chose this framing for its recent environment seminar shows how the parameters of the packaging debate have shifted in the past year. Industry conferences often take place in an ideological echo chamber where delegates reinforce one another’s views (and prejudices) while ignoring inconvenient counter narratives, then leave at the end the day feeling a whole lot better about the world around them.

Some of those views were on display at this month’s FPA event. But the willingness to invite people to present ideas that were challenging to many in the room showed an industry prepared to ask itself some difficult questions.

Crucially, the question of systems change was on the agenda. If packaging discourse in 2019 was dominated by the silver bullet materials that would solve the plastics crisis, 2020 is already promising to take a more holistic view of the problems inherent in our current model of consuming food and drink and how best to tackle them.

Waitrose was invited to present the results from its Unpacked trial, which has now rolled out to four stores following a successful pilot in Oxford. Sales of refillables, including pasta, lentils, cereals, frozen fruit, coffee, wine and beer, are outselling their packaged equivalents by 68%. “People are expecting change and expecting the industry to help them change,” said Rachel Edmonds, customer proposition manager at Waitrose & Partners.

Edmonds was noticeably coy, however, when asked about the scalability of Unpacked across the retailer’s store estate and product categories. These are still early days for reusables and predictions of an overnight revolution are surely wide of the mark. The short to medium-term ‘solution’ will more likely see a mix of reuse schemes alongside single-use products selected for their functionality and environmental credentials.

Indeed, those promoting reusable solutions should brace themselves for a barrage of questions on their suitability as a substitute to single-use materials, many of which were articulated by Louise Manning, professor of agri-food and supply chain security at the Royal Agricultural University.

Manning repeatedly hammered home the point that product packaging, including plastic, solves issues around food safety and hygiene, arguing that if we’re going to have people with reusable containers touching and weighing products we must accept an increased risk of a food safety outbreak. Furthermore, how can we effectively manage allergen risks when foods are loosely packaged in reusable containers, she asked?

Manning made the point that retailers’ due diligence defence will be completely different for packaged products than for people who take loose products away in their own bag or container. If a piece of metal is found in a biscuit, the retailer’s defence is that it was contained in the packaged product that was supplied to it, she explained. If the product was sold loose how can the retailer prove that the metal was introduced in the supply chain (or by the consumer)?

These are legitimate questions, although it should be noted that environmental health officer and barrister Julie Barratt told Footprint’s The Future of Foodservice Packaging report that the hygiene factor has perhaps been overplayed with reusables and it “would be for the consumer to prove that the business caused the problem, physical or bacterial, and beyond reasonable doubt”.

Food law is just one of many areas that will need to evolve alongside a wide-scale shift to reusable packaging. But, as WWF’s sustainable materials specialist Paula Chin reflected during a passionate presentation, regardless of the validity of such questions the urgency of the environmental challenge demands that answers are found.

Chin spent her entire career working for food retailers before joining WWF early last year. Now an outsider looking into her old industry, she acknowledged that championing reusable packaging conflicts with many existing business models. But Chin pulled no punches when she said: “This discussion isn’t about reuse versus single-use but whether we can continue to exploit the planet’s resources to support the current ‘take-use-dispose’ model.”

Chin said that everyone was complicit in perpetuating the single-use approach, not least the UK government whose four consultations held last summer focused heavily on the product’s end-of-life. Repeating the mistakes of the past will not lead us to a solution anytime soon, she argued.

And herein lies a paradox in the current approach to systems change. The status quo is clearly unsustainable, yet a widespread shift to reuse models will likely be many years in the making. Efforts directed towards improving recycling rates, developing novel materials, and reducing and harmonising plastic polymers will be seen by some as a bridge to a reusable future (and by others as a final destination) but these will take time and cost vast sums of money. The risk is these measures serve simply to reinforce the current model of ‘take-use-dispose’, or else leave billions in stranded assets should the long-term future turn out to be in reusables (it is surely no coincidence that Coca-Cola has restated its commitment to plastic bottles at a time when the company is investing in acquiring its own recycling infrastructure).

The best hope for a resuable revolution, as alluded to by both Chin and Edmonds, lies in collaboration at scale – driven by businesses and enabled by government policy. A business as small as Waitrose is not going to force suppliers to invest the millions in new operational infrastructure – including equipment and transportation – needed to support a reusable model at scale. Watching a recent Channel 5 documentary on the supermarket chain Iceland, it was instructive to witness managing director Richard Walker’s excitement at the news that Tesco had committed to removing one billion pieces of plastic by the end of 2020. The fact a competitor was receiving some positive PR was of far less significance to Walker than the knowledge that a retailer of Tesco’s size could shift the entire supply chain thereby helping Iceland achieve its own goal of removing all plastic from own-brand products.

Currently, as Chin noted, there is a significant risk of first mover disadvantage in switching to resuables (for evidence, consider the hit to sales suffered by Boston Tea Party after it ditched disposable cups), which is why she said the high street needed to move as one on the issue.

The consumer, of course, has to be brought along on the resuable journey too. Manning made the point that Waitrose customers do not represent the majority of the UK public. “We can’t assume this is a middle-class conversation,” she said. “Millions of people have to buy whatever they can afford on the shelves.”

Certainly, the upfront cost of purchasing reusable containers must be factored into the conversation around the appeal of reuse models (although it’s worth noting that a recent survey by Vauxhall Motors found over a third of van drivers use reusable coffee cups or lunch boxes to avoid unnecessary waste). But with each of the ‘big four’ supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – launching their own reuse initiatives during the past year the risk of the mass population being excluded may be overstated.

Still, the question of scalability persists. Consumers have been conditioned over many years to expect convenience and may not be easily persuaded to make compromises. There are some within the packaging industry who maintain that the public taking more responsibility for disposing of single-use packaging responsibly is the answer to all of our problems. It’s an easy and understandable diagnosis from an industry perspective, but it ignores a body of academic evidence that shows how people’s choices are largely shaped by their environment rather than a collective failure of willpower or morality.

Businesses, including packaging suppliers and high-street food brands, have both facilitated and profited from the societal shift to convenient, on-the-go consumption that has gone hand-in-hand with the explosion of plastic and other single-use packaging. Yet the infrastructure to capture and recycle this additional waste has not kept pace with demand. Blaming consumers for the scandal of plastic waste feels akin to a fossil fuel company claiming that drivers and airline passengers are responsible for the climate crisis.

The challenge, as Chin again alluded to, is in confronting our throwaway society in which the cult of the consumer is sacred. And it’s here that the packaging sector arguably has most legitimacy in resisting the shift away from a system based on single-use. One industry alone cannot change habits and routines that are deeply embedded in the way people lead their lives. It requires a redrawing of economic and societal rules, including questioning the seemingly unshakeable mantra that consumer demand is the ultimate arbiter of business strategy. It requires leadership from government, including new indicators for how we measure prosperity and changes in the law so that a business’s fiduciary duties are to society as well as their shareholders. And it requires pre-competitive collaboration across business sectors and a realignment of business models so that value is intrinsic in the services companies provide rather than the products they sell (as one caterer told me at the FPA event “if I don’t sell bottled water I lose money on the contract”).

At times, policies promoting a shift away from single-use packaging were presented at the FPA seminar as an existential threat to the industry. “The single-use food and beverage sector as we know it is dead,” declared Eamonn Bates, secretary general of trade body Pack2Go. “The reason we are here is we did too little too late.”

Businesses, even those whose existing models depend on the continued supply of single-use packaging, will hopefully emerge from their state of despair to discover new opportunities on the horizon. Across the Atlantic, the growth of plant-based meat alternatives was initially presented as a nail in the coffin of the US meat sector. But rather than rage against the dying of the light, certain meat industry giants like Tyson Foods have invested in plant-based start-ups and developed their own meat-alternative brands in order to future-proof their businesses. It’s unlikely demand for meat will fizzle out any time soon, but if and when it does happen there will still be a Tyson Foods.

The same is true for packaging. The shift in public sentiment has been dramatic and disorientating. But when business leaders’ heads stop spinning, they should pause and reflect on how they might play their own role in shaping the supply chains and systems of the future.

 

 

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