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Lifting the Lid on Plastic: Any colour as long as it’s not black

Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black. Those were the words of Henry Ford about the Model T which, in 1913, became the first automobile to be built on a moving assembly line.

Black was chosen at the time because it was inexpensive and fast-drying and assisted the speed of assembly.

You could be forgiven for thinking the same statement was previously applied to food trays. Not so long ago, supermarkets’ ready-meal and fresh food shelves appeared to be almost completely stacked with black plastic trays.

However, that environmentally-friendly advantage has, for the moment, been negated. The carbon black pigments in packaging cannot be easily “seen” by most current recycling sorting systems. The plastic, therefore, often ends up as waste in landfill or incineration. 

Despite efforts to rectify this, for example through trials with major retailers and Viridor, the shelf-life of black plastic has been abruptly suspended.

Response from the major UK supermarkets

For now, supermarkets have been quick to respond to consumers’ concern about black plastic packaging and plastic waste in general. Their actions include:


“We’re taking action to remove all non-recyclable and excess packaging in our business – including plastic. Over the last year, we've changed the packaging for 800 Tesco brand products, removing over 4000 tonnes of hard-to-recycle packaging.”


“Reducing plastic across all our stores and supply chain is one of our absolute priorities which is why we’re the UK’s first major retailer to make a significant commitment to reduce plastic – we’ve pledged to cut plastic by 50% by 2025.

“We’ve removed black plastic trays from chilled ready meals – we’re the first retailer to offer a recyclable alternative in our own-brand range, saving over 1,000 tonnes of hard to recycle plastic each year. Fresh food black plastic trays will be replaced with recyclable alternatives (6000 tonnes) by the end of this year.”


“Removing unnecessary plastics is a priority for us. We’ve halved our packaging by almost 50% since 2009, taking steps to eliminate hard-to-recycle black plastic on fresh meat, fish, poultry, fruit and vegetables. 

“Our ultimate aim is to eliminate unnecessary plastic and make all own-brand packaging reusable, or made out of widely recyclable or home compostable material by 2023.”


From the supermarket’s Press statement of last October: “Asda has been reviewing plastic use across its entire business, removing more than 6,500 tonnes of plastic packaging from its own-brand range – equivalent to the weight of 600 million plastic bottles.

“It will no longer produce non-detectable black plastic in its own-brand by the end of this year and will make all of its own-brand packaging 100% recyclable by 2025.”


"We are the first retailer to announce the complete removal of black plastic from all own-brand food and drink packaging.

"All of Morrisons own-brand products will no longer be produced using black plastic. The move accounts for almost 4000 tonnes of plastic being made more easily recyclable – that's 7.4% of the plastic used at Morrisons each year, and represents an important step in Morrisons efforts to make all packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025."

"Any colour as long as it is NOT black" is a strong theme with the supermarkets and the packaging manufacturers are also responding with innovations.

Multi-coloured range of plastic trays

For example, Faerch has launched a multi-coloured range of natural CPET plastic trays made from 100% recycled content. The company has reported: “Evolve by Faerch trays are made from collected and recycled bottles and trays and are available in naturally fluctuating tones. 

“No extra colour is added during recycling and production, therefore preserving its natural make-up. The colour of each tray reflects the specific blend of recycled content that it is made from. 

“This ensures a unique look, which clearly outlines to consumers that they have a sustainable choice.” 

The trays are detectable using today’s sorting systems and Faerch CEO Lars Gade Hansen added: “The unique look also reminds us that we should treat the tray as a valuable resource that we collect after use for recycling – again and again.” 

Waitrose & Partners is one of many retailers who have switched from black plastic into Evolve, with Karen Graley, Packaging Manager for Waitrose & Partners, stating: “This is an exciting example of packaging innovation that helps us move even more ready meals out of hard-to-recycle black plastic into a rainbow of recycled content that can be recycled again and again.”

The UK Plastics Pact is another initiative aimed at creating a circular economy for plastics. It brings together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain to tackle the “scourge of plastic waste”.

Led by WRAP, its targets for 2019 included:

1.    All packaging to be designed to be detectable.
2.    Sorting equipment to be adjusted as required to ensure detection.

Looking ahead to 2025, UK Plastic Pact targets include 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable.

A compostable choice

Last year, Waitrose & Partners introduced the world’s first compostable ready-meal tray for their Italian ready meal range. These compost-friendly fibre-based trays, called Fresh, are manufactured by the global food packaging specialist Huhtamaki and are “as functional as the black plastic alternative”. The trays can be recycled and are certified for home composting.  

Foil continues to feature

Co-op has replaced plastic packaging with a foil tray and card sleeve on some of its ready meal lines, such as its Irresistible fish pie. 

Recyclable and suitable for oven heating, aluminium trays have long been a feature of supermarket shelves. And Waitrose has recently launched its No.1. Ready Meals range in gold coloured foil tray. 

Innovation in this material also continues, with UK-based i2r recently launching Ultra, incorporating a “new style of embossing to dramatically increase stress resistance thereby reducing the gauge, price point and environmental impact of the product”.

Solutions for most of the major trays

Here at KM Packaging, we supply five of the top six food manufacturers in the UK with lidding films engineered to protect, present, and preserve their food. 

With a wide spectrum of specifications including mono-material films, we have solutions for most of the major trays found on the global market today. 

As well as films suitable for the Huhtamaki Fresh trays, we have completed ready meal projects for the Evolve by Faerch trays and pressed board trays by Southern Cross. Further afield in Australia, we supply printed lidding films for the EarthCycle pulp tray for fresh strawberries, and very recently, a printed lidding film for a BioPak sugarcane tray for tomatoes from The Costa Group. 

And when it comes to foil trays, we were the first company to market lidding films for smoothwall aluminium trays and our experience in weld and peel solutions is second-to-none.

Thanks to our comprehensive range of lidding films being suitable for oven, microwave heating, and chilled / frozen storage, we can provide a range of solutions as manufacturers and retailers develop their food packaging.

Reduce, Recycle, Reuse 

Waitrose & Partners and the Co-op are not the only supermarkets to already have been busy with plastics alternative and reuse, recycling, and reduction of plastic. Others’ activities to date include:

  • Asda has switched its entire chilled ready meal range into recyclable trays.
  • Sainsbury’s launched reusable bags in the fruit and veg aisles of all of its stores and encouraged customers to bring in their own containers.
  • Tesco was the first major retailer to remove 5p plastic bags from its stores. And it is stopping the use of plastic carrier bags to deliver groceries from its online business. The move will mean that nearly 2000 tonnes of plastic will come out of production annually. Also, the car park at Tesco Extra, in Cuckoo Bridge, Dumfries, was resurfaced using waste plastics that would have been destined for landfill or incineration.
  • Morrisons has moved all loose fruit and veg to be sold in paper bags and removed plastic packaging from many items such as sleeves from cucumbers during the British growing season.

It is worth noting, however, there is growing concern about unintended consequences. For example, the usage of non-plastic materials for food packaging can lead to more spoilage and wastage. 

And, as Stephen Aldridge, co-author of the book “Why Shrink-wrap a Cucumber?”, has said: “While the more we strive to use less packaging, its greenness or otherwise isn't always as clear as polyethylene.”

We’re also seeing an increase in rigid plastic materials being replaced by flexible “soft” plastic products. Rigid plastic materials include plastic bottles, containers, and trays. 

Flexible packaging provides a range of advantages. This includes reductions in the usage and cost of materials and transport. They are, therefore, also more efficient and produce less waste.

It's all part of the evolution of food packaging, from sacks and barrels to tins and glass bottles, to plastic containers and film covers.

Challenges to this evolution remain and if not tackled will undermine the sustainability of plastics. For example, limitations in existing waste collection infrastructures mean the lidding film element of the package is not currently recyclable in the UK. We will be looking into this paradox of resource efficiency versus recycling in a future article. 

Alternatives to plastic

Alternatives to traditional flexible and rigid plastic packaging are also emerging. One example is Notpla, a material developed by Skipping Rocks Lab combining seaweed and plants, which gained much publicity from the use of Ooho! edible water balls at the 2019 London Marathon. 

Hellmann’s and Just Eat have recently teamed up to roll out a trial of Notpla seaweed sauce sachets across the takeaway sector. The sachets are naturally biodegraded in approximately six weeks.

Other alternatives include:

Corn starch packaging: Biodegradable material using polylactic acid (PLA), made from the fermented corn starch sugars. 

Pulp packaging: For example, EarthCycle is a line of pulp trays that have been specifically developed for the fresh fruit and vegetable sector. Made from blended virgin and recycled pulp, it is home compostable and recyclable. The packaging can be fitted with a top seal film.

Bagasse: Produced from sugarcane fibre waste material, bagasse packaging is naturally compostable and suitable for hot, wet, and oily foods. It is also microwave safe. This packaging is also suitable for top sealed lidding films.

Chitosan: Chitosan is a sugar obtained from the hard outer skeleton of shellfish, including crab and lobster. It is seen as a promising bioactive polymer for food packaging applications, particularly as an antimicrobial film.

We will follow the further development of alternatives to plastic with interest. However, plastic will continue to play a key role in the foreseeable future due to its versatility, economics, and the many benefits it delivers. Take APET and rPET trays, for example, widely used for soft fruit and many other foodstuffs that don't require in-pack heating. Already widely collected in UK kerbside household rubbish waste collections, switching out of APET/rPET trays into alternative materials requires consideration; packers and brand owners need to understand wider impacts, such as resource use, carbon footprint and appropriate disposal / collection. 

What is needed, and the industry is working towards, is circularity. That is to see plastic waste as a resource, to be used over and over again. It is exciting to see innovation from across the value chain in this area, especially through organisations such as CEFLEX, leading a future for plastics that is environmentally and economically sustainable.

Plastic-bodied "Soybean Car"

Going back to Henry Ford, he experimented with making plastic parts for automobiles in the early 1940s. This resulted in what was described as a "plastic car made from soybeans”.

The plastic-bodied "Soybean Car" was unveiled by Henry Ford on August 13, 1941, but its further development was halted by the outbreak of World War II.

We are unaware of the colour of Ford’s plastic car. However, today, it would most likely be offered with a spectrum of choices, using just enough (recycled) plastic as required and many reusable parts.

And that appears to be the sustainable future of plastics, in any colour. 

Want to know more?

Read part 4: Answering the difficult question with the 3 Ps - protect present preserve

Missed Part 2?

Try to imagine 200 million elephants. Or 900 million compact cars. That is the equivalent weight of food lost or wasted each year. In Part 2 of our series Lifting the Lid on Plastic, we looked at the role of plastic in tackling food waste.

Read more here >>

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