An expert panel assembled for the third Footprint Forum at Pret A Manager’s London headquarter to discuss the environmental impact of packaging in the foodservice supply chain and some of the innovations and initiatives being implemented to counter this.
Delegates, including operators, suppliers and distributors, heard panellists acknowledge that whilst cutting down on packaging, food waste is something that has to be addressed across the supply chain, ultimately, the industry has no control on how end user consumers dispose of their takeaway rubbish.
Keynote speaker was Richard Firth, Channel Marketing Director for Unilever Food Solutions in the UK, who expressed his belief that responsible business practice and sustainability go hand in hand. The challenge of running a good business becomes even tougher over time. Were working in an ever-evolving society, which means were continually coming up against new challenges to deal with from an environmental perspective, and its our job to keep pace with this, he said. I believe that the most effective way for us to do this is to work together, he continued. The OFSCI not-for-profit initiative aimed at saving money in the food service supply chain of a few years ago was an attempt by distributors and food manufacturers to make the supply chain more efficient. It did a good job in getting competitors around the table talking about ways to do things more efficiently, ‘better’ (in the sustainable sense of the word), and most cost effectively.
“Maybe now is the time when we should be looking at the next iteration os its kind of cross-industry action group, which is perhaps what the Footprint Forum can achieve for us, he said.
Packaging is clearly one of the obvious challenges to sustainability. As we all know, packaging sells, so over-packaging is still a big problem to overcome. However, weve made massive strides in foodservice already, which is a promising start. There are further steps we can take, but they need to be combined with an understanding of how the rest of our business impacts on the environment, customers and communities.
Neil Whittall, Environmental Officer of the Food Packaging Association and Huhtamakis Commercial Director, gave an overview of packaging in foodservice, saying: We have got to get packaging out of landfill but each company looks at CSR individually there is no cohesion. Now we must get the industry together to more seriously communicate the message that the UK packaging strategy must be to reduce waste, increase recycling and increase use of recycled material, he said. Legislation will soon be put in place that will affect all of us. We must act now, pulling together all bodies to work out a solution before the Government imposes legislation on the industry.
However, Whittall pointed out that what customers do with their rubbish is out of the industry’s hands. He also deplored the fact that councils all have different strategies on recycling from borough to borough and the lack of cohesive strategy is not helping things to move forward. He also raised the point that in large organisations facility managers are not linked to the foodservice operation. Waste management in this situation is cost driven a completely different focus to foodservice and is not meeting the needs for clean waste streams. Recycling is not happening. However, he said, this type of forum is very important and will continue to get more support.
Jocelyn Ehret, Senior Head of Sustainability and Innovation (Europe) at Havi Global Solutions, is responsible for the purchase of packaging materials for McDonalds globally as well as Pret a Manger, among others. Things have improved over the past five years but it is important to realise that sustainability doesnt mean the same for everybody. At the end of the products life there is no one solution, she said, but products must be either compostable, re-useable or offer 100 per cent recoverable energy. The best thing manufacturers can do generally is make the packaging lighter and use less of it because the recycling facilities just arent available. Until the councils really get on board with the right bins in the right places for consumers to dispose of their cups and wrappers, we cannot hope to address the problem on the UK High Street, she said.
Following the speeches it was time for a lively debate as the Footprint Panel, Chaired by Peter Farrett, of strategy consultancy Farrett & Co and on which the previous speakers were joined by Ian Douglas, Prets Head of Commercial, and Thomas Jelley, Sodexos Corporate Citizenship Manager, answered questions from the floor. It was proposed that arguably in no other industry (apart perhaps from grocery retail) would the loss of modern packaging be felt as much. Neil Whittall reckoned that we are stuck with it as our lifestyle has changed and we cannot do without it as health and hygiene would be compromised. Without packaging life could be hit hard, he said. Richard Firth said: How we respond in the future lies in choosing the right materials and the industry committing to sustainable sourcing. We need to move to a common agenda, he said.
The debate was wide ranging, covering subjects as diverse as whether packaging encouraged air miles, the problem of plastic bottles in the ocean, how many times PET and paper can be recycled and the energy involved in recycling aluminium. Delegates and the panel also discussed the problems of over-packaging, and the pitfalls of reducing it in terms of health and safety reasons and perceived devaluation. As Ian Douglas said, You can see the product devalued. We brought in a biodegradable plastic bag and customers complained about what they called the horrible supermarket bag so we went back to our thicker one. But you can use it to the utmost. Get the recycling message across on the bag.
From the floor, Peter Backman, Managing Director of Horizons, asked Are we talking the same language? Are we talking about packaging from factory to client or are we talking about packaging from outlet to customer? What is the difference? In the US they talk of compostable packaging, we dont here. Are we speaking different languages and is this a problem? Ian Douglas was emphatic that there is no difference. It should all be fit for purpose and packaging can be reduced in both areas, he said.
Delegates were keen to know whether a PET plastic could be made that is not only biodegradable but made from materials that are not formed from scientifically engineered forms such as GM crops? According to Ehret, PET is the best material we can use for food packaging as it is fully recyclable, is often made from recycled materials and, she points out, is the only material used in Europe. However, Patrick Gee of Llanllyr Source Water pointed out that it cannot be recycled endlessly, to which she explained that it could be recycled up to seven times just like paper, explaining that Recycling shortens the length of the fibre. If we stop using virgin fibre we would not be able to recycle so we need to use both virgin fibre and recyclable PET, she said, adding I am not so much pro PET, I just dont dislike it. It is the best material available for foodservice. However, she admits there are issues with bio degradability saying any polymer can be a threat because of what the end user does with it and maybe we should be looking more at not so much bio- degradable but bio-based product. Corn is the main source of wonder plastic PLA and that needs to be planted taking up space that could be growing food. Now there is talk of using agro-waste from sugar cane to make it. If I had to bet, I think it will turn out agro waste is the best bio waste to use for manufacture, she said.
Another question that came up was whether packaging actually promotes air miles. Thomas Jelley reckoned this is a hugely complex set of issues saying: If I didnt think the produce would survive air freight I wouldnt buy it or supply it. There is a lot to be said for looking at LCA assessment before transport. Its not only about the throwaway culture, we want things that dont grow here. Look back at demand and the culture of entitlement that has grown up over the last few decades. He pointed out that a recent survey by a British university showed that apples air freighted from Chile and New Zealand in February were better nutritionally than their stored British counterparts.
Tony Reynolds of Reynolds Catering Supplies raised the subject of the volcanic ash cloud saying that it had caused some problems but nobody went hungry and that it was in fact a good healthy challenge. Do we really need to air freight? All our customers found alternatives, he said. However, Whittall asked what would happen to the global economy if we all shrink back into our own patch. Other economies are reliant on us. What will they do? I am a bit scared that more developed countries will contract and where are the developing countries left? he asked.
Jelley responded that there will have to be trade offs and a lot of that is down to values including environmental concerns and policy on growing GM crops. Only by bringing values into tradeoffs can we make this work: lets not stick to technofix and lets have courage to tackle issues straight on, he urged.
Finally, the new practice of upcycling came under discussion. Football shirts for World Cup fans are being made from recycled plastic bottles and some of the trendy shops have handbags made from all sorts of waste including drinks cans, old carrier bags and agricultural sacking. Harriet Gething, Trade Marketing Manager at Cafédirect says they have re-covered an old sofa with coffee sacks and it looks great thereby proving one persons waste is another persons resource.