IN AN ideal world, there would be a nice 'closed loop' approach to packaging, meaning that all materials are recycled, processed and reused by the supply chain to create either more packaging or something else. this, however, is not the case just yet.
The glamourous side of my job means that I spend a fair amount of time looking in the bins of our food service clients, mostly hotels, restaurants and pubs. This is not half as grim as it sounds or as it would have been a few years ago.
The contents of a general waste bin has changed significantly. It now makes good financial and environmental sense for companies to segregate food waste, glass, plastics and cardboard on site, and as a result, the volume of general waste produced is not only less, but much cleaner, less smelly and a lot lighter than it used to be. This is good news for a whole host of reasons. Less general waste means less landfill or Energy from Waste (EfW) and lighter, less contaminated general waste means it costs less to transport. This should translate into lower waste management costs for the business, assuming they are recyling the rest.
From this, it sounds like the majority of packaging related items are now being recycled, right? Sadly, this isn’t yet the case and there are a few reasons why.
In theory, and thanks to hefty investment on the R&D side of things, there is a recyclable option for most packaging items.
However, as soon as these materials come into contact with food or liquid other than water, they are considered contaminated by the processors. Let’s take soft plastic as an example, the type that might be used to vacuum pack meat or fish. The decontamination or cleaning required to allow these to be recycled is costly and impractical and so it ends up as general waste. So, whilst we are looking at vastly reduced levels of contamination, sadly, this is still enough to prevent certain materials from being recycled.
Linked to this is the financial viability and availability of recycling certain materials. A good example is Polystyrene (EPS, Expanded Polystyrene). This material is recyclable, and there is a market for it as a commodity, however it is lightweight, bulky in volume and requires a specific type of processing. This means that the cost attached to collection and transportation of the material to the processing plants tends to outweigh it’s value and there is no economic case.
Unfortunately, I don’t have solutions to either of the above scenarios, however I believe that innovation now needs to focus on how we can realistically get these recyclable materials out of general waste and back into the supply chain. Collaboration between the Food Service industry and the processing plants is vital here, looking carefully at the lifecycle of these materials to work out how systematic change could be implemented.
Jane Dennyson is Strategic Development Manager at SWR