Choosing the right packaging for your business is never an easy decision as there are so many variables to weigh up and, generally, no one single option will meet all your needs.
While cost, heat retention and product presentation will almost always top the list of important factors, increasingly coming to the fore are the eco-credentials of different types of packaging.
So before we take a look at the pros and cons of each type of packaging, we’d like to draw your attention to the different “green” terms as these are often a point of huge confusion – and it’s easy to see why when there is so much conflicting and mis-information.
Understanding these terms will not only help clarify what it is you are buying, but also how to best dispose of your packaging so that at the end of its life it still retains its green credentials.
If in doubt, ask your supplier for clarity and don’t assume all packaging – even like-for-like – is the same.
Biodegradable means that a material can break down into natural elements, CO2 and water vapour over a period of time when introduced to organisms like bacteria, fungi, and algae. Nearly every material can be considered biodegradable, though it might take up to thousands of years for some materials, like plastic, to break down, while just one or two for cardboard or paper.
Whilst on the face of it this sounds positive, there is a lack of any certification standard for biodegradable packaging which Martin Kersh, executive director of the Foodservice Packaging Association, believes brings its credentials into question. In his opinion, there is no such thing as biodegradable packaging. He explains: “I would absolutely object to anyone using the term biodegradable in conjunction with packaging because there is no certification for it. Where’s the peer-reviewed evidence to show that it biodegrades, how long it takes or what it biodegrades into? Where are the regulations surrounding it? It’s appalling and I would absolutely object to anyone using that term. We don’t allow our members to use the term.”
Packaging that is sold as biodegradable should be placed in with general waste for disposal.
A compostable material refers to a form of biodegradability that transforms materials into organic waste that enriches the soil, like food scraps, fallen leaves and grass clippings. The main difference between compostable and biodegradable products is that compostable items provide nutrients back to the earth.
Composting requires the right level of heat, water, and oxygen to support microorganisms that will break down the material and, therefore, this usually requires an industrial composting facility. If you are buying compostable packaging, check that your local council either has a collection service available or allows it to be added to the food waste stream. If it doesn’t, compostables will need to be disposed of in general waste where they will be incinerated or sent to landfill. If the latter happens, once locked in landfill without the right conditions to compost, there is no guarantee they will decompose and, therefore, your green claims – not to mention the additional purchase cost – may well be futile.
Unlike the term biodegradable, for packaging to be classified as compostable, it must be certified to the European Standard EN13432. Increasingly packaging is being produced that is suitable for home composting too – lookout for the words “certified as home compostable”.
Compostables should not be placed into a standard recycling bin as they are not currently recyclable and can contaminate the recycling process.
This is packaging made of materials that can be used again. Not to be confused with recycled, which means packaging that already includes content from previously used material.
Recyclable materials include glass, metal, card, paper and – increasingly – certain plastics. However, by far the most common form of recycled/recyclable packaging is corrugated cardboard.
It’s important to bear in mind that once contaminated with grease or food residue, paper and card can no longer be recycled and, therefore, customers should dispose of them in the general waste.
Bioplastics are made partly or wholly from sustainable plant sources such as sugarcane, corn starch or cellulose from trees and straw, rather than purely fossil fuels. They generate fewer greenhouse gases and use less energy to produce.
Popular examples used in fast food packaging include bagasse, PLA (polylactic acid) and PHA (polyhydroxalkanoate). The word “poly” in the latter two indicates that some plastic made from fossil fuels has gone into producing the packaging.
Not all bioplastics are equal, however. Some are designed to biodegrade or compost at the end of their useful life, aided by fungi, bacteria and enzymes, but not all. Likewise, some can be recycled alongside conventional plastics, but not all. Some, if sent to landfill, can release methane – a potent greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere. It’s always best to check what it is you are buying with your packaging supplier so that you can communicate the correct disposal method to your customer to ensure your good intentions are worth it.
This is the most traditional method, it gives us the name ‘wrapping fish and chips’ and older customers tend to prefer it. Although this method might seem cheap to get started, you have to consider training costs and food quality.
Bagasse packaging may seem expensive but on the flip side staff need nearly no training and they do keep the food in great condition. The main area of concern is that not all councils process bagasse so packaging might still end up in landfill or an incinerator.
Corrugated boxes are a great all rounder, but like any packaging they come with limitations. We love the heat retention properties and the fact they can be cut up and added to normal waste.
⏱️ Easy to apply gluten-free labels.
🥡 Functional labels as they seal the packaging.
💡 Promotional, fun message to inform coeliacs.
🌳 Naturally compostable.
🇬🇧 Designed and printed in the UK.
These are a great choice if your customers are going to make a short journey or eat on the go.
These are a great choice if your customer journey is short or they are eating on the go. But be careful that they aren’t lined with PLA as this is a cling film made from plants and cannot be broken down unless sent to an industrial composting facility.
These have been a staple in the takeaway food industry for some time, but they have limitations aside from being made from crude oil. A ban is on its way so it’s probably best to find an alternative very soon.