Sirane’s Simon Balderson agrees that there is a growing trends towards better quality products which produce a great end result. “The food retail market is so competitive that products have to be as good as the competition’s, if not better,” he remarks. “Convenience and ease of use is vital.”

He also observes a shift towards the ‘meal kit’ approach, where customers are provided with the components for a meal, and the means to cook it (i.e. a cooking bag) rather than a ready meal in a plastic tray: “Some ovenable packaging is there for the convenience of taking the food home and just cooking it, but other ovenable packaging can contribute and actually improve the food’s taste and texture – and in a crowded market it’s that packaging which is standing out.”

Mr Cottam believes that consumers are looking for a desirable product presentation and require clear on pack information, and most importantly confidence that the packaging is safe to put in their oven and will not detrimentally affect the quality, taste or smell of the food they are cooking. 

“With the ever-growing focus on the environmental impact of packaging waste, more consumers are considering the packaging as much as the product,” he says. “Clear communication of the recyclability of the ovenable packaging is key to ensuring that recyclable materials which offer various benefits including environmental, do not get overlooked or tainted by the growing call for a reduction in landfill plastic packaging waste. It is vital that the supply chain and infrastructure to ensure recycling facilities for ovenable packaging materials is improved and made more widely accessible.”

Functionality and end result are the essential KPIs in the eyes of consumers, Mr Balderson suggests: “The product needs to be simple, easy to use, and clean. If its messy to open when cooked, it might put you off buying the product again. A ready meal needs to be simple – just cook it, not lots of steps to follow. But ultimately it’s about how well it cooks the products. Does it deliver a more than satisfactory end result?”

Convenience vs sustainability

How, though, does consumers’ hunger for an easier life sit against their other stated concern about environmental impact? 

“It is key that wasteful and excessive plastic packaging is removed or reduced from our supply chains, however a proportion of the plastic packaging used provides a direct environmental benefit over the alternatives available,” Mr Cottam states. “The plastic used in ovenable packaging is predominantly PET and is 100 per cent recyclable. The lack of infrastructure to effectively and widely recover, sort and recycle plastic packaging where possible is disappointing, especially when there is no need for the material to go to waste. The message Terinex is keen to spread is that plastic packaging and plastic ovenable products can and do have a value when used for the right purpose, especially when those materials can then be recycled.”

Mr Balderson similarly cautions against going too far down the ‘no plastic’ route but adds that where plastics used cannot be recycled, alternatives need to be developed. “Removing plastics isn’t necessarily the answer to everything, the key is making sure the plastics can be easily recycled by using less complex multi-layer packaging films,” he says. “Often what’s needed can be done, but there’s a cost – if the industry’s prepared to absorb the additional costs, convenience for the consumer can still be achieved.”

Sirane has introduced a plastic free food pouch (Earthpouch) for dry and moist foods.This is compostable and recyclable. The next step, according to Mr Balderson, is to further develop the product and make it ovenable.

Both interviewees agree that the future of the industry is difficult to predict, with the need to balance the war on waste with functionality, Brexit and an uncertainty about who will pay for reducing plastic waste, the retailers or consumers. 

“I think there will be continued focus on material reduction and environmentally less harmful substrates and alternatives,” says Mr Cottam. “But equally there is unlikely to be a reduction in the demand from consumers for convenience, good, healthy food as time continues to become a more and more valuable commodity.” 

“Companies will continue to develop ovenable packaging solutions that are eco-friendly, and at the same time some of the more complex laminates will fall by the wayside,” Mr Balderson concludes. “But cost, functionality and end result will continue to be the main drivers, with the eco-credentials becoming an additional focus.”