How do start-ups “think outside the box” for snacks and alcohol?

It is estimated that in the UK, between a quarter and a third of all household waste comes from packaging, with a significant share going to food and drink.

Food packaging is notoriously difficult to reuse and recycle, due to the safety and shelf life qualities that multi-layered and flexible packaging brings to the product. In the convenience beverage industry, packaging and transportation are seen as the two biggest pain points. And of course, the heavier the package, the more energy it takes to transport it.

At the same time, the UK is working to decarbonise all sectors of its economy to reach its goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Consumers also want to reduce their carbon footprint through the food choices they make.

As pressure mounts to reduce carbon footprints and meet consumer demand for more sustainable food and drink, nimble start-ups are reinventing conventional packaging. FoodNavigator hears how.

Sustainable snacking

The snacking industry faces many challenges when it comes to packaging. Not only are snack foods often fragile, but they also often have an irregular shape. Protecting snack foods, while ensuring extended ambient shelf life, is difficult.

Adding sustainability into the mix creates a number of new challenges.

British snacks start-up WARP Snacks, owner of snack brands Eat Real and PROPER, is working to solve these problems. The company has developed a plan to achieve this, which aims to reduce packaging, invest in renewable materials, completely reinvent packaging and collaborate with stakeholders.

WARP has made progress in some of these areas, Katie Leggett, sustainability manager at WARP Snacks, told delegates at the recent Futures Summit hosted by start-up network Bread & Jam.

Image source: WARP Snacks

Its PROPER brand, which makes flavored popcorn and lentil crisps, has managed to reduce, both in weight and size, the amount of film it uses in its packaging. He also did the same for the card used in his decks.

The investment in renewable materials is also evident in PROPER’s popcorn bars. Last year, the brand launched new packaging made from 30% recycled plastic. Leggett suggested the brand would be keen to do the same for the film in its popcorn and crisp packets, but a lack of available recycled content stands in its way.

The company has set itself the challenge of “completely reinventing packaging” with at least one product by 2025, and is collaborating with other stakeholders through the UK Flexible Plastic Fund, to work on plastic recycling solutions flexible.

Drink and dispose responsibly

In the UK, alcohol challenger brands are also working to reduce their packaging footprint.

Selecting the container in which a brand’s drink is sold – glass, plastic, aluminum or cardboard – can be a minefield.

If glass can be recycled an infinite number of times, it is often heavy to transport, and therefore energy-intensive. If aluminum cans are made from 100% recycled material, it significantly reduces its footprint – but not all cans are recovered (about 82% in the UK, but only 45% in the US). Cardboard is not infinitely recyclable and less than 10% of single-use plastic can be recovered from recycling.

Thomas Soden, co-founder and CEO of RTD cocktail brand Ace + Freak, sells his offerings in aluminum cans. Although aluminum cans are endlessly recyclable, when selecting beverage labels, Soden was surprised to encounter barriers to recyclability.

Image source: Ace + Freak

“We found that out of the three types of label material, two of them made the can unrecyclable,” he told Future Summit delegates. Ace + Freak selected a polypropylene label that can be removed and recycled as two separate raw materials.

Elsewhere, the canned cocktail brand is also reducing its footprint through recycling. The company does this in conjunction with its co-packing facility, whereby Ace + Freak reuses any excess boxes the third party may have. “It extends the life of that board…and it costs us less money. And I think [that comes from] this constant mentality of questioning everything.

Go off the beaten track

The global wine industry is dominated by glass packaging. An estimated 19 billion glass bottles are sold each year on the global market, suggesting that the sector is less reluctant to switch to more sustainable alternatives.

Image source: When in Rome

As 39% of the wine industry’s emissions are associated with packaging and transport, British start-up When in Rome – which understands that the two are intrinsically linked – is working to reduce this footprint.

Instead of using glass bottles to sell its wine imported from Italy, When in Rome works with three formats: cask-in-box wine, 100% recyclable cans and its newest paper-bottled wine.

The latter is essentially a bottle-shaped bag, explained Rob Malin, CEO of When in Rome. The paper bottle is made from 94% recycled paper and has an 84% lower carbon footprint than a single-use glass bottle.

Last year, Made in Rome was also the first wine brand in the UK to go public with its climate footprint through a partnership with Carbon Cloud. Malin sees the move as “just the start” of his commitment to “radical transparency” of the climate impact of his business activities.

Infrastructure Spotlight

The responsibility for tackling the problem of packaging waste cannot lie solely with start-ups.

A multisectoral approach, incorporating the public and private sectors, as well as consumers, is likely to be best adopted. And as WARP Snacks’ sustainability manager put it, it may not be the material itself that is the problem, but the “system in which they operate”.

“Plastic is not the enemy” Leggett told delegates, but for small businesses, “it is difficult to change the system”.

The lack of recycling infrastructure, for example, is a major barrier to recycling in the UK. While some flexible films can be recycled when consumers return them to certain retail stores, only WARP’s PROPER brand – which uses double-layer packaging – is eligible.

WARP’s Eat Real brand, on the other hand, uses a triple layer. “It’s because we export a lot of this product, so it must have different food safety requirements,” she explained. Therefore, Eat Real films cannot be recycled in the UK.

This is part of the reason WARP is looking to better engage with stakeholders, we were told: “We cannot solve this in isolation.”

About Donnie R. Losey

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