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By Neil Goldman, Managing Director of Colpac

The PM’s recent declaration of war on plastic waste has signalled the start of a 25 year environmental plan. But, bids to abandon plastic packaging has long been the focal point of many other key figureheads over the years, including former Asda chief, Andy Clarke, who, late last year, called for supermarkets to reject plastic packaging altogether.

Undoubtedly, it is a debate which has reverberated down the supply chain for many years.

For several decades we have witnessed a definite shift in demand for paperboard options when it comes to packaging produce, particularly as many major retailers engage with WRAP in a bid to reach the 2025 deadline of the Courtauld Commitment to reduce the resource intensity of the UK’s food and drink industry.

For some time retailers have been squeezing food manufacturers to lower their costs, while pushing them to move away from plastic packaging in a bid to become more sustainable. However, as paperboard products generally tend to be more expensive than their plastic counterparts, retailers have, in the past, wrestled between their eco-friendly conscious and cost. But what are merits of paperboard packaging? And is there is still room for plastic on the supermarket shelf?

Busting the paperboard myths……

The multitude of benefits that paperboard offers across its lifecycle – from manufacturing to retailing to consumption and recycling – is becoming increasingly clear. Supermarket shelves are bursting with new product variations, and, through paperboard and the use of food safe graphics, manufacturers have greater scope for customisation, from reprinting packs to suit regional or seasonal offers, to cross promotions with other products and recipe printing.

While previously deemed an unsuitable option in the packaging of produce with a high water content, particularly fruit and vegetables which has a reputation for bursting once packed, the properties of paperboard material can now overcome these issues. Due to the texture of fruit for instance, it is not uncommon for one at the bottom of a pack to spoil and leak and spill juice during the packing and transportation process, however paperboard options now are durable to sustain the weight of the packed produce, and any liquid which permeates onto the paperboard is absorbed, ensuring the product does not dry out.

As food waste creeps higher up the agenda, the use of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) which replaces air with a mixture of gases, has gained in traction to keep produce fresher for longer. While MAP has traditionally been limited to plastic packaging, the use of this technology within paperboard, while a very recent development, is increasing. In addition, the use of better barrier films, either alone or laminated to board, will be more common in the future as paperboard overtakes plastic.

While ‘keeping fresher for longer’ is important, so to is the demand for packaging to withstand re-heating and chilled environments.

As many consumers reach for quick, food-to-go options, retailers are increasingly stocking ready meals which can be re-heated at home. Through the latest printing capabilities paperboard packaging can carry vibrant inks and coatings which not only promotes a brand, but is formulated with heat resistant pigments suitable for microwave heating.

A sustainable solution

In the eye of the consumer, whose standards for purchasing environmentally friendly products are high, paperboard wins every time. From recyclable, to compostable and biodegradable, the plethora of eco-friendly paperboard options can be perplexing, however, correctly used, the print on the packs can communicate to the consumer not only the benefits of the product being sold, but also the best way of sustaining our environment by recycling the packaging in the correct manner. Retailers can also update their commitment to sustainability by documenting their accreditations to leading environmental bodies, including the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), on packaging.

A case for plastic

While the argument for paperboard is undoubtedly strong, there is still a place for plastic packaging and, very occasionally, we have to admit that paperboard alone does not offer the solution. As over a third of customers gauge the freshness of a product from its appearance, packaging needs to offer excellent visibility and here combination packaging, a paperboard base and plastic lid, is the best way to give customers the fresh visibility they crave.

Using plastic doesn’t need to put food packers and retailers on the environmental back foot. What is vital is that they understand the complexity of the packaging materials available to them, so that they come to the decision that is best for them and their product, while meeting environment objectives.


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