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Lifting the Lid on Plastic - Part 4: Answering the difficult question with the 3 Ps - protect present preserve

Can I have a “P” please, Bob?, was once the UK’s favourite TV game-show catchphrase, as we sniggered like school kids over the classic double entendre from Blockbusters.

Today, if the contestants again tackled questions whose answers began with a specific letter of the alphabet, there would bound to be a question like “What P is being blamed for causing pollution in our oceans?”.

Of course, the quick-fire answer would be “Plastic”.

But there is a lot more to the plastic question. And a few more “P”s as well!

Food packaging and the environment

At KM Packaging, our purpose is “protect, present, preserve”. Generally, we are referring to delivering the best solution for your packaging needs by:

  • Protecting your products throughout the entire process, from factory to table.
  • Presenting your food in a way that is attractive, professional, and recognisable.
  • Preserving food and extending shelf-life across the food industry.

But our 3 Ps can also be applied specifically to the role of plastics in this context and the environment in a wider sense.

So far in our “Lifting the Lid on Plastic” series, we have looked at:

Now, we round-up the topic by also exploring our 3Ps in relation to the usage of plastics in food packaging today and tomorrow and also how this relates to our wider environment issues … pollution, climate change, and food waste. 


As stated by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation: “We need to move away from today’s linear take-make-waste model and fundamentally rethink the way we design, use, and reuse plastics. 

“A systemic shift tackling the root causes is required: a transition towards a circular economy for plastic, in which it never becomes waste or pollution.”

Plastic food packaging under particular scrutiny: mono-material lidding films

The New Plastics Economy Vision is to:

  • Eliminate the plastics we don’t need.
  • Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
  • Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

Plastic food packaging has fallen under particular scrutiny due to the high volume of its production, often limited periods of usage, littering, and waste management problems.

However, the material presents particular challenges. Taking flexible plastics as an example and lidding films in particular, there are currently insufficient means of collection and recycling the material.

Significant work is being done across the value chain for packaging through organisations such as CEFLEX, a European consortium of recyclers, polymer producers, converters and brand owners. CEFLEX have defined five steps to building a circular economy for flexible packaging, which include: 

  • Driving the collection of all flexible packaging for sorting and recycling.
  • Sorting the suitable mono-material fractions so that they are available to be recycled.
  • Redesigning multi-material flexible packaging to mono-materials with existing recycling streams.

With the above in mind, KM Packaging offer mono-material lidding films within our K SEAL, K PEEL and K FOIL ranges. Made up of one or more layers of the same material, these mono-material solutions are designed for recyclability.

Recycling technologies are also improving and we’re seeing new innovations such as chemical recycling. This is covered below under “Innovative recycling technologies”.

Still, while the recycling methods and systems catch up, flexible plastics continue to deliver multiple functions and benefits. Considering our 3Ps and lidding films, they include:

  • Protection. Lidding films can protect food and non-food items as well as liquids, solids, and powders to help prevent waste and ensure food is presented at its best. They act as barriers to contamination and protect products during the rigours of the transport and distribution chain.
  • Presentation. Exceptional transparency and excellent anti-fogging properties are key features of good lidding films. Most can be printed with graphics and text and offer convenient peelability and multi-peel, while being suitable for use in ovens and microwaves.
  • Preservation. A range of food-preservation solutions are available from high-barrier films, and laser-perforated films, to vacuum skin packaging. We can also provide films suitable for the intense pressure of HPP, or high temperatures, to extend shelf life and enable the food resource not to go to waste.

Plastic packaging plays a vital role in protecting all food products and uses far less resources than the products it protects, which often have a much higher carbon footprint than the packaging itself. 

However, as we recognised in our article “How the ‘greatest thing since sliced bread’ became toast”, the problem with plastic cannot be ignored, especially as not all of it can currently be recycled. 

In fact, single-use plastics account for 40 per cent of the plastic produced every year. But there are strong moves towards establishing greater circularity in the food industry.

Extending the lifetime of plastic food packaging to 100 years

Leading by example, Lars Gade Hansen, CEO of food packaging manufacturer Faerch Group, recently said: “The lifetime of a food tray is as little as eight days, what a waste! We are on a mission to change that. We can recycle materials and extend the lifetime to 100 years. This is a concrete example of how we make a sustainable impact.”

The urgency for recyclable food packaging is increasing year by year, as the reuse of packaging means less need for the extraction of new materials, the process of which can take a toll on the planet.

More and more companies want to minimise their environmental impact and carbon footprint, and when it comes to food products -of which there are plenty- achieving these goals makes a very substantial difference in the mission to protect the planet.

Our use of mono-materials allows us to design with recyclability in mind, and our range of mono-material lidding films offer the same strength and security as “hard-to-recycle” mixed plastics.

So food product distributors can easily switch to sustainable and environmentally-friendly packaging options without compromising on food quality and hygiene.  


Until recently, supermarkets’ ready-meal and fresh food shelves appeared to be almost completely stacked with black plastic trays, as we discussed in “Lifting the Lid on Plastic - Any colour as long as it’s not black”

However, the carbon pigments in black packaging cannot be easily “seen” by most current recycling sorting systems. The plastic, therefore, often ends up as waste in landfill or incineration.

Black was preferred partly because foods appeared more colourful in contrast.  It was also seen as being more efficient because black plastic can be made by mixing multiple other colours from plastic waste.

One solution has been a multi-coloured range of natural CPET plastic trays from Faerch. Made from 100% recycled content, the trays are detectable using today’s sorting systems.

Anti-fog lidding films

Since the appearance of food products on supermarket shelves plays a big role in customers purchasing decisions, we are especially confident that our anti-fog lidding will help to make a significant difference in the effort to reduce food waste. Especially useful for products that have a high moisture content and is stored in cold conditions, anti-fog lidding prevents them looking unhygienic or unappealing. This means the product is more likely to be bought and thus less food goes to waste.

Alternatives to plastic are also being explored.  For example, Waitrose & Partners launched its Italian ready-meal range in a new fibre-based tray. The trays, called Fresh, are manufactured by the global food packaging specialist Huhtamaki. Compatible with K-Peel lidding film, with solutions already on the market, Huhtamaki Fresh has recently won the award of the Bio-based Material of the Year.  

Alternatives to plastic

These trays can be recycled and are certified for home composting and are top-sealed with a mono-material lidding film designed for recycling. Alternatives also include pressed board and pulp trays. Smoothwall aluminium trays are also widely used for ready meals. KM Packaging has a range of suitable lidding films, including mono-material solutions, for all major types of food trays found on the global market today. 

We are collaborating with other innovative companies to ascertain how new technologies and materials can transfer into lidding films. 

Our aim is always to meet the needs of the food manufacturing industry while keeping the carbon footprint at a minimum. We are also confident that, combined with the scale-up of chemical recycling, sorting systems will further improve to more easily recapture our materials that are designed for recycling in the circular economy model.

With regard to alternatives to plastic for the presentation and packaging of food, other examples of materials include:

  • Notpla - a material developed by Skipping Rocks Lab combining seaweed and plants.
  • Corn starch packaging - biodegradable material made from fermented corn starch sugars. 
  • Pulp packaging - made from blended virgin and recycled pulp, used increasingly for packing fresh soft fruit produce.
  • Pressed board - for example, Southern Cross' ovenable board trays, to which we offer a high performance seal and peel lidding film solution
  • Bagasse - produced from sugarcane fibre waste material.
  • Chitosan - a promising bioactive polymer obtained from the hard outer skeleton of shellfish, including crab and lobster.
  • Foil - although foil is not new, some companies are switching to it from plastic trays. As the first to market lidding films suitable for uncoated aluminium trays, our K Foil lididng films are industry leading. 

Disadvantages of using other food packaging materials

However, many companies, including the major supermarkets, are concerned a knee-jerk switch away from plastic for presentation and packaging could cause different environmental issues. Each material has benefits and drawbacks. 

Switching out of plastic may seem like the “greener”, more “sustainable” solution, but many of the alternatives can produce higher carbon emissions, use a greater amount of resources, and create end-of-life pollution.

A report from Green Alliance entitled “Plastic promises - What the grocery sector is really doing about packaging” provides the example of plastic bags for loose produce and bakery items being replaced by single-use paper bags. Yet those paper bags can have much higher carbon impacts.

It revealed that, when all factors are accounted for, a paper bag would need to be reused 43 times to have a lower impact than the average plastic bag.

And another report, “The impact of plastics on life cycle energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in Europe”, found that the substitution of plastic products by other materials will in most cases increase the consumption of energy and the emission of greenhouse gases.

There is also concern about greenwashing - conveying a false impression to consumers, mostly due to ignorance, of how environmentally sound a product may be. This is partly due to retailers not having a reliable and common methodology for assessing the impacts of materials.

One brand representative was quoted as saying: “The past year has just really pissed me off no end with companies coming out and boasting about not using plastic, even when they’re in single-use glass, and their carbon emissions are going to be off the scale.”

What does sustainability in food packaging mean?

The British Plastic Federation has published a series of infographics about plastics and the positive contributions plastics makes to society. Some of the facts include:

  • Wrapping a cucumber in plastic film extends its shelf-life to up to 14 days.
  • Recycling just one plastic bottle saves enough energy to power a 60W light bulb for six hours.
  • Wrapping bananas in a modified atmosphere bag extends shelf-life by 2 to 3 days.
  • The production of plastic bags consumes less than 4% of the water needed to make paper bags.
  • In Europe, only 3% of all products delivered to customers are spoilt during transport thanks to packaging – compared to 50% in developing countries.
  • Over the lifetime of the average car, lightweight plastic parts save around 3000 litres of petrol as a result – which would get you to and from New York almost five times.
  • The shelf-life of beef can be extended by 5-10 days when using the most advanced plastics packaging solution.

This can bring us to the question of what does sustainability actually mean? When customers ask for sustainable solutions, does this mean “not plastic” or does it mean the best material choice “all things considered”?  


Why use plastic for food packaging?

A key role of plastic packaging is to preserve and protect food and prevent waste. It keeps food fresher for longer in the supply chain which can look like:

  • Moved from farm to processing facility.
  • Stored.
  • Packaged.
  • Transported.
  • Distributed to shops.
  • Purchased.
  • Stored at home.
  • Consumed.

As we reported in “Food for thought on tackling waste”, a startling 1.3 billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted each year. Without plastic packaging, that number and the damage to the environment would be significantly greater. For example, the British Plastics Foundation (BPF) has found that:

  • 27% more apples are wasted when sold loose versus being in plastic packaging.
  • Cucumbers extend their life when wrapped up in film by up to 14 days.
  • Advanced plastic packaging extends the life of steak by up to 10 days.

And a recently updated and extended study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (ifeu) found that, as well as helping to preserve food, plastic reduces transportation costs and carbon emissions because it is more flexible and lighter than alternative materials like glass or cardboard.

Of course, we are still working towards the goal of transforming the UK plastic packaging sector to make it as efficient and environmentally friendly as possible. Our mono-material lidding films is one big step that we’ve taken in the right direction.

The UK Plastics Pact has set four world-leading targets to be achieved by 2025:

  1. 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable. 
  2. 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled or composted.
  3. Take actions to eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging items through redesign, innovation or alternative (reuse) delivery models.
  4. 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging.

Each of these targets will contribute strongly to the preservation of food and the environment AND the value delivered by plastics.

Innovative recycling technologies

Inroads are already being made with manufacturers and retailers switching from one plastic material for another. For example, Co-op has moved from black plastic bases to a designed-for-recyclability clear mono aPET for its sushi packs.

There is also a growing interest in other initiatives like the mono-material lidding film in our K SEAL range for food packaging. In addition to being designed for recyclability, our K SEAL range of lidding films are designed with perforation ability to help food stay fresher for longer. So alongside plastic waste, food waste is also being minimised.

Another way waste is being tackled is through technical improvements within recycling plants. These should help to eliminate problems like the carbon pigments in black plastic packaging not being easily “seen” by most current recycling sorting systems. The same systems can also have difficulty identifying other plastic materials that are by their nature designed for recyclability.

The future of plastic food packaging

Investment is also being made into innovative recycling technologies for harder-to-recycle plastics. For example, while most recycling in the UK features “mechanical” procedures, chemical recycling is believed to have strong potential. So much so that Tesco’s Director of Quality, Sarah Bradbury, said, “This technology could be the final piece of the jigsaw for the UK plastic recycling industry.”

In another approach, Nestlé recently announced that it would invest up to £1.5 billion to lead the shift from virgin plastics to food-grade recycled plastics and to accelerate the development of innovative sustainable packaging solutions.

And Government actions such as the Plastics Tax will also contribute to the development of a stronger circular economy. In our article “Taxing Matter of Recycled Plastic” we describe that, by 2022, taxation is a certainty for manufacturers of plastic packaging which uses insufficient Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) content.

Of course, as consumers, we have a major part to play in the process to ensure high levels of material recovery and reuse. And steps are currently being taken to offer assistance. For instance, there are moves to make producers label their packaging as “recyclable” or “not recyclable” for simplicity and clarity. 

Let's be clear on plastics

WRAP has also recently launched its “clear on plastics” campaign to combat the public’s confusion about plastics. It gives clear information about plastic use in packaging as well as tackling questions that challenge the use of plastic, such as “why can’t we just ban all plastic packaging” and “why can’t we replace plastic with other materials such as glass or paper?”.

Brand owners and retailers, front line to the consumer, are also playing a vital role in informing consumers about plastics. For example, in its recent Smartwater radio ad, Coca-Cola clearly re-iterates that the bottle is made out of 100% recycled plastic. 

And Marks & Spencer state on their website “We use plastic packaging to protect our products. It plays a significant role in keeping our food fresh and limiting waste, while it prevents the clothes we sell from getting damaged. Plastic can have environmental benefits compared with other materials. For example, it’s lighter than glass, so reduces CO2 emissions when it’s transported.”

This is a much better approach than the afore-mentioned greenwashing. And it shows the importance of making the correct material choice – whether plastic or an alternative. 

Choosing the best food packaging

It is really important to make informed decisions about your choice of packaging based on data and scientific evidence to understand the lifecycle of a material and ensuring your product is protected, presented, and preserved. That is using scientific versus emotive rationale. 

These activities all contribute to the growing realisation that the enemy is not plastic … it’s waste.

Plastic brings value to our lives and, through efficient usage and recycling, it is an important resource that enables us to protect, present, and preserve food.

Soon, when someone asks “Can I have a “P” please, Bob?”, the question might be “What material beginning with P has made a strong positive economic and environmental impact on our lives?”. Once there is greater awareness of the factors described above, the answer should be _ _ _ _ _ _ _


Missed Part 3? 

Not so long ago, supermarkets’ ready-meal and fresh food shelves appeared to be almost completely stacked with black plastic trays.

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