Drinks packaging for the post-pandemic planet

Robyn Black

Robyn Black

20 November 2020

The industry is facing big challenges, but sustainability is still big news. Robyn Black asks whether the drive for planet-friendly packaging has survived the past few months

Remember plastic straws? December 2018, we were dropping in them into every drink available but one episode of Blue Planet II later, we couldn’t drop them into Room 101 fast enough. As 2020 dawned we could confidently say the legacy of that plea from Sir David Attenborough for a more sustainable way of life (‘the future of all life now depends on us’) was thriving. And then… Covid-19.

Within weeks we all went from buying loose pasta from the local zero-waste shop to snatching the last plastic-wrapped spaghetti in Sainsbury’s. The question facing us now is: has our desire for eco-friendly packaging survived a global pandemic, or will worries over hygiene and health win out?

For some, like Lorenzo Angelucci, CEO of Transcend Packaging, the drive for more sustainable packaging solutions is ‘irreversible’ regardless of the pandemic. The movement is unusual, he says, in that it is generated both by consumer pull and corporate push.

Cutting out heavy glass bottles will make a significant dent in any carbon footprint

Malcom Waugh

‘Once the likes of McDonalds got involved, that flicked the switch for good,’ he explains. ‘It was good in the eyes of consumers, so brands took it on board and legislation followed.’ Namely: the European parliament’s vote to ban single-use plastics; France banning disposable cutlery and plates and planning a complete ban on single-use plastics by 2040; and a 2018 pledge from the UK government to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste in the next 25 years. For the UK drinks trade there’s also the Deposit Return Scheme to consider [see below for details].

Fellow packaging company Frugalpac unsurprisingly agrees with Angelucci. Its CEO Malcolm Waugh tells Imbibe the shift is being driven at all levels and while coronavirus may have caused a ‘blip’, the impetus for change remains strong. ‘The whole world is talking about this,’ he says.

Frugalpac is hoping to spearhead the change with its Frugal Bottle, a 750ml bottle made from 94% recycled paperboard, launched in the summer. Up to five times lighter than its glass equivalent, it has a water footprint four times lower and a carbon footprint up to six times lower, the maker claims.

Wine watched its weight

The first company to launch with the bottle is Italian winery Cantina Goccia, and Waugh says the wine industry has shown the most interest thus far. Why wine? ‘It’s an industry keen to de-carbonise and cutting out heavy glass bottles will make a significant dent in any carbon footprint,’ he explains.

‘About 60% of the imported wine consumed in the UK is transported here in bottle. And those bottles tend to be heavier than bottles used in domestic bottling because they have to be more robust to survive shipping.’

You can, of course, recycle glass but it takes a lot of energy and water and a lot of it doesn’t end up getting made back into bottles. The recycling rate of glass in the UK is also only about 50%, compared with 75% for paper, according to Waugh – another reason he believes paper is a good choice for drinks packaging.

Drinks giant Diageo has come to a similar conclusion, announcing in July that it had created the ‘first ever plastic-free, paper-based spirits bottle’. The bottle will debut as part of the Johnnie Walker line-up in early 2021, while the firm has created a consortium of global FMCG companies to develop the technology further, including PepsiCo and Unilever.

Brewer Carlsberg has also bought into the power of paper, revealing its prototype Green Fibre Bottles. It too has joined a consortium of global companies to advance the technology – its ‘paper bottle community partners’ include L’Oréal, The Absolut Company and Coca-Cola (more of the latter later).

Carlsberg’s approach when developing its packaging is in line with its ‘betterments’ strategy – constantly improving the product, explains Pete Statham, sustainability manager at Carlsberg UK.

The best illustration of this is its ‘snap pack’ format launched into the UK in 2018, which replaces the plastic rings holding multipacks of cans together with recyclable glue, reducing plastic by up to 76%.

‘We’ve set up a working group to find other ways of improving and minimising every aspect of packaging along the line,’ Statham says. ‘For example our stretch wrap, used on pallets. We’re working to reduce it, to use recycled material and to ensure it can be recycled once it’s been used. The incremental improvements are vital to support the big changes and innovations.’

Incidentally, when it comes to beer, rest assured that draught is one of the most sustainable ways to package any drink (some beer kegs have been in use since the ’70s). There is a debate to be had around the sustainability of the smaller key keg format – but that’s a whole other article.

What it means to be green

Of all the drinks companies it is soft drink manufacturers that have caught the most flak around sustainable packaging. But all have made some hefty commitments, including UK bottler Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP).

Safe & sustainable deliveries

One effect Covid-19 had on drinks packaging was in the choices bar owners had to make when switching to home delivery during lockdown. Hygiene was at the top of everyone’s agenda, so where did that leave sustainability?

Iain McPherson, of Scotland’s Panda & Sons and now Edinburgh Booze Delivery (through which local bars can sell their drinks for home delivery), which he created during lockdown, says the two are not mutually exclusive.

‘Hygiene and sustainability are on a par with one another when we make these choices. I understand how sustainability was impacted by the lockdown – disposable gloves, disposable masks, harmful cleaning chemicals, increased use of blue roll to clean.

So we tried our best to maintain sustainability where we could.’

The solution was 200ml glass bottles. To keep costs down McPherson created a buying group with the other bars he was working with, doing the same for the biodegradable labels used on the bottles.

‘The sustainability movement has been severely impacted by lockdown, the momentum seems to have gone in slight reverse,’ he says. ‘I do hope the majority of people can refocus on this.’

As yet, it has not announced plans for a paper bottle but the company is working to develop ‘biosourced and biodegradable materials,’ confirms head of sustainability, Nick Brown. CCEP is also on target to remove 21,000 tonnes of virgin plastic from circulation every year by the end of this year (by moving all its plastic bottles from 25% recycled PET to 50%). It is also worth noting that CCEP sells more cans than it does plastic bottles, and uses more glass than it does plastic.

‘We have already managed to cut the weight of our iconic glass Coca-Cola bottle by a fifth and switched our Sprite brand from green to clear glass earlier this year [the switch from green to clear was made in the plastic bottles in September 2019], as clear material is much easier to sort in the recycling process and can therefore be used or repurposed many more times.’

Boxes beat bottles

However, CCEP’s most sustainable products are its bag-in-box (BiB) ones – the boxes of post-mix used in the on-trade. Recognising this, the company has expanded its capacity here, investing in a new £20m BiB line at its Edmonton plant in north London, to try to further drive this format.

Packaging is a really intriguing concept, because most
people automatically see plastic as evil

Pritesh Mody

Flavour guru Pritesh Mody, founder of cocktail development company World of Zing, can wax lyrical about the joys of BiB – and, perhaps more surprisingly, the benefits of plastic.

‘Sustainability in packaging is a really intriguing concept, because most people automatically see plastics as evil.

‘However, the carbon footprint of a BiB or a wine-bag style pouch is actually lower than glass… through the distribution chain, there’s also a lower carbon footprint when sending customers pouches over bottles. The perfect solution will be to have recyclable pouches but until then there is no perfect solution.’

Of course, there are also those who wish to stick with glass, and some have found ways of making that choice more sustainable.

The chaps over at the Isle of Wight Distillery, for example, have won numerous accolades for the eco-friendly design on their Mermaid Gin range.

‘When we pulled the team together for the Mermaid rebrand I took a bamboo toothbrush along with me – being mindful of the environment has always been part of our mission,’ says co-founder and distiller Xavier Baker.

The bottle is fully recyclable, uses sustainably sourced cork, has a compostable seal, recyclable neck label and is certified 100% plastic free. Unsurprisingly Baker and the team are very proud of their achievement – but what about the cost?

‘Of course there are cost implications because the raw materials are hard to find. It means having to think creatively – we did consider using recycled plastic from the beach in some element of our design but this can’t be used for food grade products. We weren’t willing to compromise, which gave us a greater challenge, but while it’s not easy to choose sustainable, it is possible.’

Deposit Return Scheme waits in the wings

Who knows whether the impetus to launch a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in the UK will survive both coronavirus and Brexit but, as it stands, the governments in Westminster and Holyrood claim to remain committed to the plan.

The Scottish parliament voted in May to push ahead with the scheme, due to be implemented on 1 July 2022 (postponed from 2021). Under its DRS, 20p will be added to the price of single-use drinks containers (the deposit), which can be refunded when customers return their empty container to the retailer or to a reverse vending machine (which scans returned containers then refunds the deposit).

Bars, pubs and restaurants will not have to charge the deposit to the public.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, powers to introduce a DRS and set new charges for single-use plastic items were included in the Environment Bill, introduced to Parliament back in January.

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