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What does waste-free mean for the future of FMCG?
As sustainability efforts increasingly lead to plastic reductions and attempts to decrease packaging waste, it is important to ask, are the changes compromising areas such as product safety? Callum Tyndall finds out more.
Image courtesy of Anna Schlosser / Shutterstock.com
Plastic is a problem. Unfortunately, the hunt for a solution is still very much ongoing and although there are a range of interesting alternatives being explored, they are yet to reach the point of mass market adoption. Instead, retailers are starting to consider simply doing away with packaging as a whole.
In principle, it’s an excellent idea. Waste is a huge and complicated problem that presents what is perhaps packaging’s most existential crisis to date. On the grand scale, waste is doing immeasurable harm to the planet, and on the smaller scale, it creates a poor public image for brands – so reducing waste in all areas possible is both a necessary and a smart move.
The Guardian reported in April that more than 100 zero-waste stores had appeared across the UK, offering consumers the ability to buy products such as grains, seeds, washing-up liquid and laundry products without worrying about the environmental impact of their purchase. Larger retailers are also trying to transition products such as fruit and vegetables to waste-free.
However, as some in the industry push back on the wholesale demonisation of plastic (it may be that, in some cases, it just is the right material to use), there is also an important question to be asked about waste-free alternatives. Can they guarantee the same safety as the materials they are intended to replace?
Waste-free sector is small, but growing with consumer awareness
We are still a fair way from waste-free being ubiquitous; despite the number of zero-waste shops growing and supermarkets clamouring for the next headline with waste reduction programmes, there is still an argument to be hashed out over the best approach to waste-free and working out which products can have the packaging stripped from them. In many ways it is an argument we are witnessing in real time: increasingly conscious consumers are being presented with a growing range of initiatives designed to reduce waste. Their economic response will likely dictate the resolution of that argument.
“I would say that it [the waste-free sector] occupies less than 1% of the market, it’s certainly a very small area,” says Hannah McCollum, founder of ChicP. “That said, there are some great people doing everything they can to live a more eco-conscious and waste-free lifestyle.
“There is still not enough awareness surrounding waste (it is growing though!) and/or education about how to be waste-free. We need the largest FMCG companies and manufacturers as well as advertising firms, celebrities and the government to lead the way and direct the market to be more sustainable. It’s a huge challenge but essential we start the process.”
As McCollum states, consumer awareness will remain crucial to the progress of the sector. Without the financial incentive of consumers rewarding those better about waste, companies are unlikely to feel pressed to develop waste-free strategies. However, there is one important question for companies to answer before diving headfirst into waste-free: are their solutions providing the same measure of safety to products as plastic would?
Safety standards: can waste-free match up?
One of the main arguments that has been made for plastic is that it provides a hard-to-mimic solution to food and drink safety. Lightweight, puncture and moisture resistant, leak proof and able to withstand both high and low temperatures, it is easy to see why the material has found so much favour.
We reported on the challenge of replacing plastic in the frozen aisle last year but the same problems apply, to varying degrees, across the supermarket. Much as palm oil has become a problematic essential across the food industry, plastic is so widely used because it so effectively serves a wide variety of needs.
Asked if waste-free packaging can live up to current safety standards, Matt Ford, operations manager for Creative Nature Superfoods, said: “For us, customer safety is paramount and the current biodegradable/compostable packaging doesn’t have the necessary barriers in place to 100% prevent allergen contamination, so until this is addressed we cannot move to this sort of ‘waste- free’ packaging.
“More research and trials need to be carried out before fully sustainable packaging can replace plastic, otherwise allergen sufferers around the world will have even greater risks when it comes to food safety.”
The problem with our safety standards is that they’re too strict
McCollum disagrees, however. “The problem with our safety standards is that they’re too strict,” she says. “We are a level above any other country and unnecessarily so. It’s unsurprising that the UK creates so much waste.”
“There is a lot of waste-free packaging being developed at the moment. They will all be trying to meet the standards and due to the fortunate advancement in technology, keeping to these standards is made easier.”
The future of the waste-free sector
Driving the waste-free sector forward requires a multi-faceted approach, and change will largely come about as a result of changing consumer behaviour and regulations that reinforce and reward that behaviour.
Currently, while retailers and other areas of industry are exploring the concept, it is hard for consumers to buy in whole-heartedly. Change needs to come from the top down and that will require legislation to push corporations to speed along a transition to zero-waste. Much in the same way that clean energy efforts receive subsidies, it may be that the government will need to provide encouragement to those companies reducing waste.
Clearly there is more to do in terms of getting consumer buy-in, but probably less than we might think
The change will not, of course, be without challenge. The technical challenges of producing plastic alternatives continue, and it won't be possible to repackage every product in with a waste-free alternative. Consumer buy-in will be desperately required to push companies, ideally supported by legislation that provides real measures for punishment and reward based on waste treatment. Before any of this can happen, however, we need proof that waste-free alternatives won't compromise product safety, availability and affordability.
“Clearly there is more to do in terms of getting consumer buy-in, but probably less than we might think,” says Ben Stansfield, partner at Gowling WLG. “I suspect the bigger challenge will be getting stores reconfigured to allow for waste-free, and inevitably this will mean less product choice as a retailer who currently stocks 30-40 breakfast cereals cannot be expected to offer the same choice waste-free. Cost is also relevant – waste-free needs to be cheaper to encourage consumers to switch…we've seen good discounts available in coffee shops for people bringing in their own cups/mugs and that needs to be replicated in the food sector key staples.”