Supermarkets could reduce their use of plastic packaging by millions of tonnes through making substitutions in five areas by switching to fibre products instead, according to research for paper and packaging business DS Smith.
The ‘Transforming the Supermarket Aisle’ report, developed with consultancy White Space, identifies how plastic packaging could be replaced with cardboard or other equivalents in retail, from fresh produce punnets to shrink wrap on soft drinks.
The study was unveiled in London on Wednesday (24 May) at a ‘Redefining Packaging for a Changing World’ event at which DS Smith also announced a new partnership with the sustainability charity, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Miles Roberts, DS Smith chief executive, said: “Our research demonstrates that simple changes in the materials used could make a big difference for retailers, thereby reducing plastic use by millions of tonnes over the next decade.
“While there is no silver bullet, we know that sustainable fibre-based packaging has a huge role to play, appealing to our customers and consumers alike.”
DS Smith is a major recycler of used cardboard and mixed papers and while it has been involved in plastics, it is selling off its plastics business.
Alex Manisty, DS Smith’s group head of strategy, set out the five areas where plastic packaging could be replaced. These include:
- Plastic display trays: Often overlooked as shoppers don’t take them home, the report says these could be replaced by fibre alternatives
- Fresh produce punnets: These could be substituted with corrugated punnets as trialled by Waitrose for Duchy Organic grapes in January 2019, according to the study
- Shrink wrap: Used to wrap nearly all soft drinks at some stage, the study says this could be replaced by corrugated and glue dot alternatives
- Ready meal trays: A complex area but one where innovations are being made
- Meat, fish and cheese packaging: Not currently a high priority but a large section of the market and therefore the research identifies this as an opportunity
Mr Manisty highlighted that replacing this kind of packaging was relatively straightforward and would not require ‘man on the moon’ innovation to make it a reality.
He pointed to the environmental benefits of cardboard, which he said, unlike plastics, already has an 85% recycling rate across Europe, an average 88% recycled content and well-established recycling infrastructure in place.
By replacing the plastics, the research claims that 1.5 million tonnes of plastic, or 70 billion units, could be removed from supermarket shelves across Europe each year.
And, it says that the potential opportunity to fill this market could be worth £5.7 billion a year to the fibre industry, with the fresh produce punnet market worth £2 billion alone.
Alongside the report, DS Smith used today’s event to announce that is has signed an agreement to become a global partner of the Ellen MacArthur foundation, a charity launched in 2010 to promote the circular economy.
The partnership is intended to accelerate DS Smith’s sustainability drive and support innovations across the business, including carbon efficiency and e-commerce.
DS Smith joins the foundation’s 10 existing global partners which include Google, H&M and Unilever.
Founder, Dame Ellen MacArthur, said: “We’re delighted to welcome DS Smith as a global partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Building on the company’s strong history of innovation across its supply chains, our partnership will focus on identifying opportunities to redesign materials, business models and problematic waste streams to create solutions that are aligned with the principles of the circular economy.”
Alongside this, DS Smith revealed that it is making over £1 million from its Charitable Foundation available to invest in local sustainability or education initiatives.
Mr Roberts said: “I am pleased that through the DS Smith Charitable Foundation we will now proactively back meaningful projects in local communities that have both education and sustainability at their heart.”
The event, held at London’s National Theatre, also featured a panel debate on how to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, featuring Mr Roberts, Mr Manisty, Dr Dominic Hogg from consultancy Eunomia and Linda Crichton from Defra.
Mrs Crichton said that government ministers were busy delivering December’s Resources and Waste Strategy for England and highlighted the plans for a ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds to help cut single-use plastic waste.
She said: “We have just recently, at the beginning of last week, concluded the consultations on extended producer responsibility, deposit returns and consistency so we are already moving apace and ministers are pushing us to go further and faster where practical.”