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How the right packaging can drive a more sustainable food system in the UK

Alex Henriksen, Managing Director | Tetra Pak

4 min read Partner content

Packaging is vital for food safety and availability. Rather than eliminating it, Tetra Pak explain why we should focus on minimising harmful packaging and shifting to renewable, recyclable materials instead.

Packaging is an indispensable part of the food system, ensuring food is safe and available everywhere.

Too often, however, society has come to view packaging as inherently a problem - something that ideally we would get rid of all together.

But this ignores the vital role packaging plays.

Instead, we should be focused on minimising bad packaging, and transitioning to lower carbon, more renewable, and recyclable packaging materials.

We know this is an important transition for food and drink producers to make – both for commercial and environmental reasons. Research by Tetra Pak found that 69% of consumers highly value companies that are clearly taking steps to provide recyclable packaging options for food and drink products1.

But achieving this goal will require collaboration along the food value chain.

That is why earlier this year Tetra Pak, working with experts from across the food and drink sector, launched a report, Food positive: driving change to decarbonise the UK food system.

The report, as part of its recommendations, identified two clear steps which are needed, and can be supported by the Government, to drive a more sustainable approach to food and drink packaging.

1. Encouraging the uptake of low-carbon, recyclable packaging

Tetra Pak was founded on the idea that a package should save more than it costs, and so we are constantly innovating to ensure that our packaging is as low carbon, renewable and recyclable as possible.

But we need to ensure that it is as easy as possible for businesses to make good packaging choice.

Tetra Pak’s research found 41% of businesses say supply chain challenges or disruption, such as shortages of raw materials and price increases, are the biggest barrier to adopting sustainable packaging options.1

We need to make sure that efforts to drive sustainable packaging are not scuppered by other challenges.

Using policy and regulation, the Government should encourage the use of sustainably sourced, low carbon, plant-based materials in packaging. A clear example would be removing plant-based polymers from the scope of the Plastic Packaging Tax, to incentivise their adoption by packaging manufacturers and producers.

2. Driving better recycling, supported by the right infrastructure

At Tetra Pak we work with local authorities and waste management companies to ensure that as many of our cartons as possible are collected for recycling. The UK has its own, dedicated carton recycling plant, near Halifax, which supports this goal.

The Government has a crucial role to ensure the widest range of materials are collected, sorted and recycled – they can do this by setting specific recycling and collection targets for all packaging materials.

Belgium’s approach to recycling serves as a model that the UK should follow.

It has material specific collection targets, consistent collection streams, and an effective three bin collection system which is well-understood by consumers.

This combination of targets, consistent collections, and a consumer-friendly approach has led to Belgium having the highest recycling rate in Europe.

In 2021, 90% of beverage cartons were collected for recycling, and 73% were recycled.

A key aspect of introducing consumer friendly recycling is ensuring policies take a consistent approach, and collect as wide a range of materials as possible.

Tetra Pak was disappointed that the proposed Deposit Return Scheme will not include cartons – it is now crucial that the Government doesn’t row back on the Extended Producer Responsibility scheme and ensures consistent household recycling is put in place, with cartons included as a collection stream.

Meeting net zero

If the UK is to meet its net zero ambitions, we have to consider every aspect to decarbonising the food systems.

Vital to this is ensuring we adopt sustainable, low-carbon packaging, that can be easily recycled by consumers.

We can’t make this transition alone, and so we hope our report Food positive: driving change to decarbonise the UK food system can bring together actors from across the food value chain to drive this change.

The data cited in this article relates to a survey of 150 food and drink business leaders across the UK and Ireland and 511 consumers across the UK, conducted by Censuswide on behalf of Tetra Oak from 7 to 12 October 2022.

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