How do we solve the circular economy challenge at the same time as providing food to a growing global population amid increasing pressure on resources and the climate? Ed Roberts, Sealed Air sustainability director for EMEA, talks to Packaging Europe’s Tim Sykes.
Faced by horrific facts about both climate change and the penetration of plastics to the most remote corners of the planet, how can our industry act, and how do we prioritise?
Studies such as The Economist’s 2017 global survey on resources are highlighting significant, present challenges with natural, physical and labour resources. Over the last 18 months there has been an unprecedented (and justified) focus on the problem of plastic in the environment. But in terms of efficient use of resources, there has been significant progress. If you look at food packaging, something with a thickness of 200 microns a couple of decades ago might be 20 microns today. Alongside this there are reductions in the footprint of transportation and refrigeration thanks to things like vacuum packs, improved cube efficiency and reduced weight. At the same time, these thinner, lighter packaging materials have significantly cut food waste over many years.
Today’s drive toward materials like mono-polyethylene as a means to address the plastic waste crisis may reduce those efficiencies around food waste and energy usage. We’re faced with a really difficult trichotomy of packaging reduction and efficiency, food waste and packaging waste in the environment.
The alarming effects of climate change are visible now. Greenland alone is losing 260 billion tons of ice sheet every year – which is both indicative of climate change and in turn accelerating it. I see climate change as the tiger in the room. There’s a danger that we’ll turn our back on it while we deal with the important but much less critical issue of plastic waste. We must of course address both, but there’s a real risk of taking steps on plastics that are detrimental to our efforts to cut carbon emissions.
To give you an illustration, just over a year ago we worked with European retailer to move from MAP to vacuum skin pack for their chicken portions. This saved 1.9 million kg of CO2 and around 340 tonnes of combined food and packaging waste – in one product line alone. It’s arguable that the skin pack was less recyclable. However, without making that change we’d have failed to achieve these carbon savings.
Do you think the world is starting to take a more nuanced view after an annus horribilis for plastics?
There has been a certain amount of rebalancing to recognise that ‘tiger in the room’ but there is still a lot of pressure on plastics – quite rightly, but still with the risk of unintended consequences. EPR on virgin plastic is not going away, and this will impact food prices and lower-income consumers. There’s also a consensus forming around replacing multi-layer, highly efficient barrier packaging solutions with less efficient alternatives.
Societal focus is on how to solve problems using our existing model, when perhaps we should be thinking about how innovations such as chemical recycling could integrate those complex films into the circular economy. I don’t think any of the companies in this space, such as Sealed Air or Amcor or Bemis, increased the complexity of structures with crosslinking, adding PVDC, using different materials, just for the sake of it. Many years of R&D have been driven by the need to reduce weight, improve barrier functions, cut food waste and make it easier to automate – that is, addressing all of those key resource efficiency challenges.
How do you translate this nuanced understanding of a complex set of challenges to the concrete offerings you put before your customers?
Obviously, you have to avoid making generalisations about what is right and wrong. For instance, there’s an upper limit to the gains you get from extending shelf life: is there a financial or environmental benefit in doubling the shelf life of beef to 56 days? There’s no blanket answer to these questions.
Over the last decade we’ve put a lot of work into sustainability mapping to give a more complete picture of the impacts of the various packaging decisions that can be made. Within this we have identified 13 metrics – nine environmental (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions, food waste) and four social (e.g. inclusion). Our customers are asked to specify their primary, secondary and tertiary priorities from these. For instance, retailers always see food waste as highly important but rarely put water consumption at the top of their list. Major carriers will be likely to specify jet fuel and carbon emissions as high priority.
Is there scope beyond this to educate brand owners and retailers when they aren’t seeing the wider picture?
These businesses have already figured out what they need to do; it’s not my job to tell them what their goals are. We take this data and match a packaging system to what they want to achieve.
However, we do try to quantify each of the 13 metrics. So as part of that mix, we point out relative positive and negative impacts and the inevitable trade-offs involved in most decisions we make. Particularly over the last couple of years we have also had lots of conversations where we remind people about the wider contexts: issues such as climate change and legislative proposals. It’s our responsibility where we have expertise to help everybody in that collaborative supply chain.
Speaking of collaboration, what is Sealed Air’s vision of how it should participate in efforts to solve the big sustainability problems?
Wider collaboration is of course essential. If you picture a model of the value chain, a retailer has very little contact with a resin supplier; we as converters are furthest from the waste management sector. As a start, everyone should talk to the stakeholders on either side of the supply chain (for us that’s the raw material producers and the food processors) and branch out from there. Beyond that, cross-industry collaborations are invaluable. We’re involved in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and CEFLEX. We are also working collaboratively with organisations like MRFF (on separating different polymers after waste collection) and The Chemical Recycling Alliance (on alternative recycling methods).
What are Sealed Air’s specific goals in sustainability, and how are they driving your R&D?
The Sealed Air Sustainability & Plastics Pledge commits to making products 100 per cent recyclable or reusable, with an average recycled content of 50 per cent recycled content (60 per cent of which will be post-consumer), by 2025. What we won’t do is compromise on other metrics, such as carbon emissions, in order to meet these pledges.
It’s a significant challenge, complicated by lack of infrastructure. When you consider the 80 per cent of the market based on easier to recycle monopolymers, it has been estimated that meeting the objectives of the UK Plastics Pact will require building ten new recycling plants for rigid plastics alone. We have set ourselves targets that are equally stringent to other parts of the industry while working with more complex substrates. Shifting to mono PE and throwing in a bit of EVOH may not work in many of these applications, for a number of reasons.
We have reorganised our R&D operations and now have just under a half working on this circular economy area using a range of approaches. The other half of our R&D team focuses on further improving the functionality of films. Obviously, the two sides speak to each other so they aren’t shooting themselves in the foot. We’re fighting a battle on two fronts – with a growing global population putting pressure on resources, and if consumers in northern Europe want to eat strawberries in December these challenges aren’t going to go away.
In terms of the circular economy, our efforts are focused around four key areas. First, what the packaging is made from: post-consumer resin (which presents quality challenges, as mechanically recycled PCR deteriorates over time) or plant-based resin (which raises ethical questions around deforestation, etc.). The second area of focus is meeting external demands on packaging – reducing materials, maximising food safety, minimising food waste, functionalities such as shelf-display properties, easy opening, microwavability, etc.
Thirdly, how do we make the packaging recyclable – through existing mechanical streams, or alternative technologies, including (but not limited to) chemical recycling. Finally, we also work on how to ensure packaging is disposed of in the most appropriate way. We need to simplify both the fragmented infrastructure and, in my view, the choices consumers face. Consumers should simply know they can put everything recyclable in one bin and we the industry figure out how to separate it. We also need to create markets for those recycled materials; this can also be complicated, and there are some companies that may be cautious about using PCR at the moment because they’re uncertain about safety.
The challenges around sustainability go beyond innovation…
Yes, it’s a complex set of challenges and it’s obvious that there’s no silver bullet and you can’t leap a canyon in two bounds. However, there’s an obvious progression we need to make. We need to evolve beyond the status quo, step by step, and work with the market to shift towards new solutions.
There are all sorts of things to bear in mind aside from the attributes of the pack itself. To take the example of the vacuum-packed chicken portions, making a transition like that means asking a food processor to change their equipment from MAP to vacuum, which could be a costly investment. They need to be very confident that vacuum packaging is the sustainable answer if they are going to make it – so perhaps we need to think about different business models and financing methods, such as leasing. Maybe the financial sector has a role to play too. With a new packaging system, what are the line speed and reliability implications? Another consideration is consumer perceptions. For instance, pork goes a slightly unattractive grey colour in vacuum packaging: will shoppers accept this?
So, yes, there’s no silver bullet – rather we need to fire lots of little silver coloured bullets.