FOOD PACKAGING: Is removing plastics from the shelves really achievable?

Breathable biopolymer bags and films - an alternative to plastics

‘HOW can we remove plastics?’ is a question undoubtedly being asked by the major food processors and retailers following recent shifts in public opinion.

Earlier this month Iceland become the first major retailer to commit to eliminate plastic packaging for all its own-brand products – just a week after PM Theresa May pledged to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste within 25 years.

So is this achievable for the industry as a whole? After all, plastics are widely used as the go-to food packaging material of choice for a good reason… and Iceland sells mainly frozen food, where the situation is perhaps less challenging.

“Many food processors will be wondering how they can reduce or eliminate plastic from their packaging,” said Simon Balderson, Sirane MD. “In some cases, this will be impossible in the short term. Plastics have ideal properties of strength, moisture and oxygen-barrier, transparency, water resistance and processibility for many packaging applications. Complex film structures have been developed to extend shelf life and ensure food safety and huge investments made to produce these materials.

“At this stage, it may seem like there are few viable alternatives to plastic for key packaging applications including vacuum packaging, skin packaging, MAP, cook-in packaging and many more. However, there are alternatives…. and there are plastics used within the food chain which can be fairly easily replaced and eliminated.

“With fresh produce, for example, biopolymers could be the answer. Sirane offers a breathable and 100% compostable biopolymer material called Sira-Flex Resolve which is perfect for this application… so alternatives are there.

“We’re currently looking at ways to achieve high-barrier compostable films using biopolymers and other materials, which would allow their use for other foods, so we’re already working on developing what could be the answers.

“And of course, there’s companies like ours who have the capability to develop solutions that don’t currently exist, so my message is we’re here to help. We’re already working on potential solutions, and we thrive on a challenge.”

If the use of plastics is to be significantly reduced within the UK food chain, it will undoubtedly mean some fundamental changes; this could range from consumers needing to get used to ‘less transparent and more functional packaging’ to a return to in-store butchers counters, where the meat is packed in store.

Simon said: “In some cases the replacement of retail packaging with shelf-appeal with more functional packaging is an option. If the consumer wants to get rid of plastic they may have to get used to the fact that the food will not be as visible. You cannot see through paper, and many biopolymers – one of the main alternative options to plastic – are cloudy at best. If the consumers will accept this, in some cases food can be packaged with function rather than appearance in mind.

“However, a return to in-store butchers and green-grocers, where retailers process the meat, fresh produce etc themselves, might be something that is discussed. It’s not that long ago that these facilities were removed…. we may find they’re coming back.”

Research and development may provide some of the answers here.

Simon said: “Iceland’s MD Richard Walker said that there ‘really is no excuse any more for excessive packaging that creates needless waste and damages our environment’ as it is ‘technologically and practically possible to create less environmentally harmful alternatives’ – on this, I think he may be partly correct.

“In Iceland’s case, everything’s perhaps a little more straightforward, as replacing plastic in frozen food and for fresh produce is indeed an achievable goal. For the fresh meat and poultry industry, for example, this is much more difficult. But he’s right that technologies are out there which we can explore in order to make less environmentally-harmful packaging solutions. Answers can be found.”

Of course, the shift may come elsewhere. Many plastics used in food packaging are recyclable – but only if there’s an accessible recycling stream available.

“If nothing else,” added Simon, “we’re likely to see better recycling streams and more investment there, and the public better informed on what can be recycled.”

Sirane already offers compostable versions of most of our absorbent pads, and we’re already working on developing versions of the few that aren’t that are either compostable or recyclable as per of the paper recycling stream – or both.

Iceland has said all current plastic packaging would be replaced with paper and pulp trays and paper bags, which would be recyclable through domestic waste collections or in-store recycling facilities – all replaced by 2023 at the latest.

Simon concluded: “If you’re sat there scratching your head, wondering just how to go about reducing the amount of plastic used in your packaging, then give Sirane a call. We’re ready and willing to help…. and have plenty of ideas already.”

For more information on Sirane food’s packaging solutions, call Jeremy Haydn-Davies on +44 1952 230055 or email

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