You may have missed Plastic Free July this year, with it taking place during the Covid-19 pandemic. Participants chose to forgo all single-use plastics for a month as part of a global initiative, established in 2011, to encourage behavioural transformation and shift mindsets to heal the planet and its inhabitants.
Consider that an estimated 8m tonnes of plastic waste leaks into the oceans every year – the equivalent of one dustbin lorry of plastic a minute, according to the Global Plastic Action Partnership, a World Economic Forum-backed initiative. Further, last year the Ocean Conservancy’s annual international coastal cleanup reported that more than 45m plastic pieces had been removed from shorelines, rivers, lakes and waterways.
The ultimate goal of Plastic Free July, and similar schemes, however, is not merely to demonise plastic – a material hailed as a scientific wonder when invented more than a century ago. It is to emphasise that every one of us has a role to play to help build a better future.
There is a growing realisation that individually and collectively we must change our behaviour now, for the good of the planet and for the health of all of us who call it home. And the same is true for businesses and organisations. There are many plastic-free materials and solutions available already today, but going fully plastic-free is far from straightforward, and those businesses that have achieved it in specific areas can offer inspiration for the rest of us.
Food-packaging for thought
Gothenburg-headquartered Tingstad, a family-owned company and market-leading distributor of disposables and food service products across the Nordic region, has long embraced innovative, more sustainable packaging and packaging materials. And in October, the wholesale business launched eco-friendly takeaway food packaging using Stora Enso’s PureFiber™ product.
The pioneering PureFiber™ range of products, which will expand to other food and consumer goods applications, is free from plastic and perfluoroalkyl, and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and designed to help customers replace plastic options for takeaways.
Tingstad and Stora Enso, which produces wood and biomass-based packaging solutions and is one of the largest private forest owners in the world, first began working together in 2018. “Stora Enso was at the beginning of its formed fiber project and wanted a partner with experience in the food service industry,” says Emma Diedrich, Tingstad’s head of marketing, e-commerce and sustainability. “Together we developed the bowls, with input from us on necessary features for food handling. Early on, we saw that we share the same sustainable passion and agenda as Stora Enso in packaging, and were happy to ally with them in this exciting project.”
In terms of the specific challenges Tingstad faced in going plastic free, Diedrich emphasises the importance of timing. “Sustainable products have been around for many years, but the market has not really been interested or mature,” she says. “The market demand is led by trends, political agenda and what kind of focus and debate is going on in the world. [This is what] has driven the sustainability interest up immensely during the last year. So timing is all, which can be a challenge to master. Too early or too late can be costly.”
Tingstad has recently launched Climate compassen (Climate Compass), a tool that compares the impact on the planet of approximately 3,000 products so that business leaders and consumers alike can better understand their cost to the environment. “The food packaging industry has made considerable progress in shifting to renewable and recyclable goods,” says Diedrich. “My advice would be to invest in an infrastructure that allows us to compost the biodegradable food packaging.”
Pioneering packaging partnerships
When it comes to retail liquids, chilled and frozen foods, more thought is required to create solutions that meet consumers’ demands on packaging eco-performance. To be able to hold liquids, typical paperboard packaging needs a thin plastic layer. Plastic-free may not yet be possible to achieve, but there are also other claims companies can make – such as 100% renewable. Again in Sweden – Elopak has partnered with Arla Foods to create packaging for several organic products, including cartons, using Natura Life by Stora Enso, a natural-brown paperboard. Anna-Karin Modin Edman, Arla’s senior sustainability manager, says that by using a fully unbleached and lightweight material, the carton’s climate impact is “reduced by 24%”.
Elsewhere, customers and industry experts raised a glass – or perhaps a can – last year, when the Belgian drinks and brewing giant AB InBev partnered with US company Graphic Packaging International to switch to using paperboard to hold together multipacks of some of its range of beverage cans instead of the typical plastic rings.
“Much has changed in the 60 years since plastic rings were introduced, and we owed it to our customers and the wellbeing of the planet to make the most of the more suitable and sustainable alternatives that are now available,” says Niels Brouwers, acceleration manager in Europe at AB InBev.
“Our plastic-ring free packaging has been made possible through a long-term infrastructure upgrade at our United Kingdom breweries, which represented a £6.3m investment into packaging infrastructure that enabled us, in just 13 months, to reach this milestone. This also includes the removal of 650 tonnes of tertiary packaging plastic waste.”
AB InBev is playing its part in the drive towards a more circular economy, Brouwers says. “Removing plastic rings is just one part of a much bigger goal of having 100% of our products in packaging that is returnable or made from majority recycled content by 2025.
“We focus on four key areas: reuse; reduce; recycle; rethink,” he says. “This means constantly looking for ways to increase the recycled materials in our packaging, increasing recycling rates around the world through the recovery and reuse of materials, reducing the amount of material we use in our packaging, and educating consumers on the importance of recycling.”
Given the direction of travel, maybe next July more consumers and businesses will be keen to go plastic free for a month – and hopefully longer.
Who to talk to?
Visit storaenso.com/who-to-talk-to to find out