Published Thursday 8th August 2019

One of the key concerns across all business sectors right now is the environment. Heavily publicised over the last few years, the pressure to show evidence of eco-friendly practices weighs heavily on organisations. Regardless of improvements or current environmental impacts, many companies feel that they must implement strategies that lower their carbon footprint long-term to appeal to the modern consumer.

One of the most critical environmental concerns of recent times is the use of single-use plastics. Knowledgeable consumers are now consciously looking for alternatives, and some will avoid businesses that use them in their production and supply chains. However, for many companies, these plastics play a crucial role in the transportation and selling of goods.

Supermarkets are in a uniquely perilous position when it comes to this environmental shift. A flagbearer for the business-to-consumer experience, they are expected more than most to make their practices more environmentally friendly. However, they must also balance their ambitions with the increasingly high demands of consumers regarding the availability and freshness of food products.

The Future of Plastic Packaging

The potential harm being caused to the environment by plastic production has been widely publicised. Plastic creation has soared over a few decades, with half of all plastics having been produced in the last fifteen years.

According to the EU, around 30% of its plastic waste is recycled, with the rest either exported, incinerated or uncollected. The EU’s plastics strategy outlines its plan to have all plastic recyclable by 2030. A significant pillar of this strategy is to remove almost all single-use plastics from production by 2021.

The Importance of Plastic in Food Distribution

However, the reality is that many of these plastics are produced because they play a crucial role. Plastic is a uniquely versatile, reliable and safe material, particularly when it comes to food transportation. Food producers use these plastics because they are a hygienic, versatile and affordable, helping to ensure food stays fresh for considerably longer than if they were not used.

Some critics argue that reducing single-use plastics and, therefore, shelf lives will work as a long-term solution. However, this is also questioned. According to the British Plastics Federation, considerably more environmental damage would be created through food waste than would be saved through plastic reduction. “Food waste has a significantly higher environmental impact, particularly in the form of its carbon footprint, than packaging waste.” Moreover, companies are under increasing pressure from consumers to deliver high-value products with reliable shelf lives. With consumer demands continually being raised by factors such as online retail, this is unlikely to change overnight. These two factors combined show why many companies still use plastics.

Potential Alternatives to Single-Use Plastics

As governments and consumers seek to reduce plastic waste, many companies have tried to come up with alternatives. A range of different suggestions have been touted, from biodegradable plastics to plant-based packaging and the wider use of glass and metal. There may be a long-term solution to be found in amongst these options. However, right now, many of these are not scalable, reliable or cost-effective enough to persuade major organisations into lowering their reliance on plastic.

Reinventing the Food Supply Chain

Many industry experts believe that to reach government and wider ambitions, a combination of business and consumer understanding will have to be achieved. An early example of this is supermarkets selling fruit and veg that would previously have been deemed imperfect due to its shape. If single-use plastics are to be eliminated from the food supply chain, customers must learn to accept goods that are not as visually appealing or long-lasting.

However, even with a change in consumer expectations, supermarkets will have to streamline their supply chains even further to maximise the reduced freshness window. Included in this is sourcing more food locally, to minimise the time in transit. Still, food waste would be likely to increase, meaning supermarkets must have even more efficient ways of dealing with it, avoiding the creation of a further environmental concern.

Waste is set to become a major talking point as the debate about plastic packaging continues. Here at Expense Reduction Analysts, our waste expense management team understand its importance to business, both from an environmental standpoint and also regarding business expenses. With experience across a range of industries, our specialists can work with your organisation to streamline your waste costs and unlock extra capital for investment. If you are interested in evaluating your company’s waste strategy, why not get in touch with our team today?