The minefield that is food packaging

As a business we are constantly striving to do our bit to cut carbon emissions and reduce waste, but food packaging is a minefield.  When you look at packaging in the context of energy, the environment and food production, complicated doesn’t even come close.

Paper is clearly easier than plastic to deal with at the end of its useful life – it can be recycled or will rot down in a compost heap. But when you know that the carbon footprint of paper bags can be ten times that of plastic bags it puts a different light, on the whole issue.

As with motor fuel (diesel, gas, petrol, electric), every option has its proponents and in the end packaging choices tend to be about the lesser of evils rather than finding a perfect answer.

Here are the choices:


Paper is traditional, non-toxic and natural, easily and safely disposed of. We all love it, including the media, but because it’s heavy, it has a surprisingly high carbon footprint, and let’s face it, it’s pretty useless as food wrapping.


Glass seems to be universally hated by the UK food industry and actively discouraged by all the powers that be, but according to Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) it has by far the lowest CO2 emissions per tonne of produce. However because it is heavy, a glass jar isn’t necessarily better than a plastic yoghurt pot – you get far fewer pots per tonne. It is easily disposed of, can be recycled and offers excellent oxygen barrier qualities for extended shelf-life foods.

Biomass plastic (PLA)

Biomass plastic (PLA) is still in its infancy and often criticised for a) competing with food crops for resource and b) getting mixed in with normal plastic and contaminating the recycled product. It will, hopefully, become a by-product of food production and apparently modern laser-controlled sorting lines can differentiate between the two.

Making and recycling is at comparatively low temperatures so, once scaled up, the carbon footprint of producing it should be low. It’s perfectly safe to burn or can be composted in commercial facilities. It degrades completely in one to two years and, not surprisingly, its oxygen barrier properties will never compete with oil based plastics. All in all, a lot of ifs, but definitely a contender.


Plastic is what’s been causing all the problems. At first sight, it’s wonderful – cheap, light, sturdy, with good keeping qualities etc. It’s oil based but, if we must pump it, it’s probably a better use than burning as fuel and only about 4% of oil is used for plastic. The problems come after use.

Recycling reduces the carbon footprint by about 40% but its use is always downgraded. Food packaging becomes bin liners which become fleeces. How many fleeces do we need? Not only that but the statistics for the number of fibres that come out of synthetic material every time it is washed are shocking – so it’s still ending up in the sea.

Black plastic doesn’t get picked up by laser scanners on sorting lines so will usually get burnt in Waste to Energy incinerators or sent to landfill. It’s often the smaller pieces that cause the problems (like the tamper tabs on the deli and soup pots, or bottle tops) as they often miss recycling routes.

I think we all realise that we can’t rule out plastic completely but it needs a massive rethink along the reduce, re-use, recycle theme. I’d definitely put redesign in there as well because as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has pointed out, so much of the problem is down to bad design.

The variable local council recycling facilities are a disgrace. We send all our trade waste to (independent) Devon Contract Waste who recycle over 60% of everything and send zero to landfill. Why local government can’t do that is a mystery to us all. Great though it may be, the 5p bag tax could be spent on building recycling plants rather than giving multiples the green light for a bit of PR – such as cleaning up local beaches. It’s so short-sighted that even I, with my one eye and varifocal vision, could do better.
Whoops – I seem to have gone off on a tangent.

Biodegradable plastic

Biodegradable plastic isn’t really biodegradable. It is normally just conventional oil-based plastic with an accelerant added to it, which breaks it down into little pieces and there it stays. Superficial or what? Like microfibers from synthetic clothing it’s just making a visible problem invisible. People of my generation might say thanks but our children would probably disagree and how these farmers (not Riverford who are ultra responsible with their fleece) get away with it is a mystery to me.


Polystyrene is even worse. Fortunately those days of supermarket meat in lightweight polystyrene trays seem to have passed (correct me if I’m wrong) but it’s still being used in coffee cups and as an insulated outer, and mail order food companies, despite alternatives, don’t seem to be able to manage without it. It’s bulky and recyclers hate it. Why hasn’t it been banned?


Aluminium and other metal. In a true circular economy, aluminium should be cherished. It can be properly, ‘closed loop’, recycled time and time again but it needs to be sent into the right channel. The problem is that drinks are often consumed on the move so they aren’t – waste from generic pavement bins goes straight to landfill and aluminium recycling bins are hard to find when you’re out and about. It’s also unsuitable for small retailers and processors – I can’t see customers hanging around while we put their minced beef in a can and weld the lid on.


Tetrapak material works and the cardboard effect looks good, but because it’s multi-layered and multi-material it is extremely difficult to recycle. How on earth do they go about separating thin layers of cardboard, aluminium and plastic? There are facilities around but I suspect the initiative comes from Tetrapak to make them look good and all in all, it’s definitely a no-no. As for re-use, I can honestly say that my old man is the only person I have ever seen reuse a Tetrapak container – as a plant pot and it wasn’t pretty. They do make good firelighters though.


So that’s my brief, well-intentioned but probably massively inaccurate résumé of our current situation. You might, quite reasonably, ask what we’re going to do about it? The honest answer is I don’t know – but it will be involve looking at, and maximising the effect of, ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ and trying to maximise the effect of each stage to minimise what comes out at the end of the tunnel.

We can claim some degree of moral high ground on the coffee cup front because we’ve always used ones lined with plant based PLA, rather than plastic. They’re compostable in commercial composting facilities but, unfortunately, not in a garden compost heap (so you can throw them in your brown bin without washing them out). Either way, in the ocean, a PLA bottle will typically degrade in 6-24 months. Hopefully they don’t get that far because they can be safely incinerated (for generating electricity) or buried (landfill). So they aren’t perfect but they’re vastly better than the standard plastic lined, multi layered cups.

Watch this space and if nothing has materialised by the end of the year – shoot me.

If you’d like to know more about the pros and cons of bio plastics, this website explains it well.

Riverford have a pretty good summary of their position, which is largely applicable to us, on their website and it just confirms how complicated it is. Probably because we’re different businesses, I put PLA and glass a little higher up the pecking order.

For now though, if you have any bright ideas yourselves do get in touch – as always we’d love to hear what our customers think about this issue.