“Plastic packaging strategies must acknowledge complexity or risk futility,” says Sagentia Innovation

The race to replace food and beverage plastic packaging with alternative materials perceived as more sustainable could hinder rather than help environmental progress in the sector, according to Sagentia Innovation.

Sustainability experts at the R&D consultancy say a single-minded focus on quick wins ignores the serious and complex issues at stake. They urge more considered and pragmatic approaches that account for the bigger picture.

Popular strategies implemented by food and beverage companies include switching from rigid to flexible plastic, which reduces the amount needed per pack and the carbon footprint. However, this replaces a recyclable material with one that is not widely recycled.

Replacing plastic with materials such as paper is also problematic. Carbon footprint assessments of plastic packaging are frequently better than those for packaging made from alternative materials. This is partly due to its light weight and the fact that less material may be needed to satisfy the same functionality requirements. What’s more, a widespread surge in the use of paper could contribute to deforestation. More scrutiny is being placed on deforestation, as the recent EU Regulation on deforestation-free supply chains indicates. Similarly, the production of plant and bio-based plastic could contribute to loss of biodiversity and land, as well as water pollution.

The use of industrially compostable plastics such as polylactic acid (PLA) is not straightforward from a sustainability perspective either. They require very specific temperature, moisture, and microbial conditions to biodegrade. Some industrial composters are unconvinced that these materials are suitable for their facilities, and organic waste collection does not usually permit the inclusion of compostable packaging.

Dr Caroline Potter, VP of Sustainability at Sagentia Innovation, advises food and beverage companies to assess packaging materials’ sustainability credentials case-by-case rather than looking for a universal solution.

“Reducing plastic pollution is important, but it’s not the only sustainability issue linked to food and beverage packaging,” Potter explains. “While plastic is a controversial material, it’s lightweight, resilient, and durable, and its low permeability plays a vital role in the reduction of food waste. When sustainability is considered holistically, plastic can sometimes be the best packaging choice if the right type is selected. It’s time for a more broadminded stance that acknowledges the multitude of factors at play. Otherwise, companies could invest a lot of time and money developing packaging solutions that may be no better for the environment than those they replace.”

Sagentia Innovation has published a free guide on packaging innovation strategies, available here.

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