Ignorance and misconceptions around plastic packaging continue to hold back the food industry in making inroads into sustainability, food and packaging waste, according to LINPAC director of innovation, Ana Fernandez.
Driven largely by consumer thinking, some food manufacturers, brands and retailers remain hesitant when it comes to making the switch from other packaging materials to rigid plastic. This is despite significant efforts by industry bodies such as INCPEN and the British Plastics Federation to debunk the myths relating to the environmental credentials and safety aspects of rigid plastic packaging.
"Despite the indisputable benefits that such plastics have brought to society, negative perceptions continue to circulate about the material.
"Whilst those in the industry do understand the benefits of rigid plastic packaging, many are quite literally frightened of the potential reaction of consumers, who continue to see plastic as the root of all evil, regardless of how misinformed their concerns may be," says Fernandez.
"Whilst it is clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution in the world of food packaging, with rigorous recycling and packaging waste targets to meet and a mountain of food waste to tackle, it is frustratingly clear that progress across the supply chain in these areas is being stifled by misinformation."
Fernandez points to the contrasting perception held by consumers about paper and cardboard packaging as an example. Such packaging is seen as good for the environment, with strong credentials to meet the needs of a circular economy.
"The reality is far different," says Fernandez. "When considered over the entire life of the packaging, paper and cardboard embody far more greenhouse gases than its plastic equivalent and is extremely energy intensive to manufacture. On the other hand, plastic is light, robust and requires substantially less energy to manufacture, offering a lower carbon footprint when compared to cardboard.
"Furthermore, rigid plastics can be recycled many more times than paper. Additionally, paper or cardboard contaminated with food cannot be recycled – something many consumers are not aware of and which can lead to other cardboard becoming contaminated and unrecyclable too."
Fernandez says sustainability and creating a closed loop recycling process is at the forefront of innovation at LINPAC. The fresh food packaging manufacturer develops plastic packaging containing industry-leading levels of recycled material, in many products this stands at 95 per cent, and internally recycles all materials where possible. The company’s in-house supercleaning process cleans all incoming recycled materials to ensure the recycled PET it uses in its rigid products meet the most stringent food safety and hygiene regulations for food packaging.
Beyond the environmental and recyclability issues associated with different food packaging materials, Fernandez says the ultimate test comes down to pack functionality and performance.
She adds: "Fundamentally, food packaging must protect the contents from damage, preserve them so that they reach the consumer in the optimum condition and present them well. Increasingly, it must also meet expectations in relation to aesthetics, innovation, cost, ease of use and convenience.
"Plastic is able to respond to these needs with relative ease in comparison to other materials. It is extremely versatile enabling it to be molded, extruded or blown into limitless shapes and sizes; robust enough to withstand the rigors of the supply chain; and the technology which can be applied alongside plastic, such as MAP and heat sealing, keeps food fresher for longer and protects it from the risk of contamination helping to minimise food waste both at retailer and consumer level."
Packaging experts estimate that each pound of plastic packaging can reduce food waste by up to 1.7 pounds.
"Rigid plastic packaging has taken such a large share of the packaging market precisely because it is the most cost effective solution to deliver performance," says Fernandez. "Cost effective means resource efficient and to be resource efficient means to be environmentally efficient too.
"Contrary to popular misconception, plastic packaging should be regarded as a valuable part of our green economy and as a solution, not part of the problem!