The article below has been produced as part of the Huhtamaki Think Circle roundtable focusing on 'Accessible, affordable and safe food in an uncertain world – does food packaging have a role?', written by Otso Lukka.
Link to the video of the event: Think Circle - Accessible, affordable, and safe food in an uncertain world - Role of food packaging - YouTube
Nadiya Catel-Arutyunova, Sustainability Policy Advisor at the British Retail Consortium, a trade association for retail businesses in the United Kingdom, views the food value chain from a very central vantage point. She discusses her industry’s role in guiding customers on their journey to low carbon lifestyles, the need for more resilient collection and recycling infrastructures, and customers’ growing consciousness of their packaging footprint.
Securing accessible, affordable, and safe food is the guiding principle for food retailers. To make the system effective, each of the three aspects must be addressed. Risks facing food accessibility, affordability or safety must all be managed in the industry, a setback in any one area will have knock-on effects for the others.
“From the retail industry perspective, accessible, affordable, and safe food are the three standards that should never be compromised,” underlines Catel-Arutyunova.
Underpinning the food retail industry are food systems and a circular economy infrastructure, which must also be connected to the three fundamental promises of accessible, affordable, and safe food for consumers.
The food retail industry guides consumers on their sustainability journey
Food packaging can be an agent of change. It provides consumers with the information to mitigate the effects of climate change, not only by making recycling more convenient but also by allowing the public to make conscious choices. As Catel-Arutyunova points out, packaging is the consumer’s first point of contact with a product.
“What we’re seeing is that there’s been a massive consumer awakening, with consumers having a greater awareness and engagement with their packaging footprint. Recent research from McKinsey shows that 60 to 70% of consumers would pay more for sustainable packaging. More and more people want to select food that is not only sustainably produced but comes in sustainable packaging.”
The food retail industry has seen this consumer attitude change, and Catel-Arutyunova emphasizes it is the responsibility of the industry to help and guide customers and facilitate their journey towards low carbon lifestyles.
“Similar to the retail industry, the packaging industry will need to tell their sustainability story to consumers, who are themselves increasingly informed, demanding and inquisitive. The packaging of the future will carry more information than ever before” she says.
One must not take packaging end of life for granted
While the benefits of food packaging are undeniable, there is more to be done to fully recover the value of the materials present in post-consumer packaging. Catel-Arutyunova believes a systems change is needed, we are now at a tipping point.
“We need a long-term strategy that builds resilient collection and recycling infrastructures for all common materials and allows flexibility to incorporate future changes to our choice of materials. We know that a great amount of packaging is escaping recycling because it is not currently widely collected or does not make commercial sense to be recycled.”
Recent years have seen numerous advancements in packaging eco-design as well as recycling technology. Yet, regardless of packaging materials used, incorrect disposal of post-consumer packaging is a critical issue in many western countries where recycling rates are plateauing.
“It’s a collective responsibility,” says Catel-Arutyunova.
“One has taken packaging end of life for granted – we’ve often forgotten that packaging in itself is a product, beyond the food or items it contains or protects, and that there needs to be appropriate collection and recycling systems widely available at home and at work.”
For example, according to the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA), the recycling rate for plastic containers is 14%. In Europe, the reported plastic packaging recycling rate is approximately 40%. The recycling rate for paper and cardboard packaging paper is approximately 80% on both continents.
“Currently only 6% of plastic bags and wrapping are recycled in the UK, while flexible plastic packaging makes up a fifth of all plastic packaging put on the market,” says Catel-Arutyunova.
Innovation and collaboration are key on the path towards net-zero
Food packaging goes hand in hand with societal developments and change. As our planet is facing an environmental crisis, food packaging can be a tool that provides solutions. This is where we need innovations and cooperation. According to Catel-Arutyunova, there is constant research, development and innovation taking place in the food retail industry, with a range of new science-based solutions emerging to help retailers.
“More than ever, packaging experts are playing a central role in internally supporting their sustainability, procurement and marketing teams, and explaining how redesigning packaging or tweaking their packaging specs could lead to greater environmental outcomes. These changes, for example, could lower footprints for businesses whilst preserving food quality, accessibility, and safety,” Catel-Arutyunova says.
In the UK, collaborative industry-led initiatives such as the UK Plastics Pact provide manufacturers, producers, and retailers a platform to discuss their respective challenges and unlock value chain solutions. This initiative has galvanized the entire plastic packaging value chain:
“Clear progress is being made under this initiative, with UK Plastics Pact members accounting for two-thirds of all consumer packaging used in the UK. It is now a question of doing the right thing at scale and pace.”
“It is our responsibility as a trade body to make sure that the retail industry is on the right track on its journey to circularity and net-zero. I am happy to be part of that,” Catel-Arutyunova concludes.