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Special Edition: Sustainable packaging

United Biscuits to switch to rPET for all trays by end of 2010

By Jane Byrne , 30-Apr-2010
Last updated on 14-May-2010 at 16:16 GMT

United Biscuits is aiming to switch to rPET for all its thermoformed trays by the end of 2010 in a bid to scale up the amount of recycled packaging in its range.

In an exclusive interview on packaging policy at the company, Barry Pamplin, European packaging technology controller at United Biscuits told this publication that, in terms of availability of supply of recycled material, the firm can now rely on UK suppliers for the projected recycled polyethylene (rPET) take up in its trays.

But he cautioned that the company’s usage of the material is minimal – 1,000 tonnes – in comparison to what a soft drink maker would require to cover a range.

“Packaging can not be viewed in isolation and for us product protection is paramount."

- Barry Pamplin, European packaging technology controller, United Biscuits

Product integrity

Pamplin, looking at the overall picture, argues that it is difficult to quantify what best practice is in terms of sustainable packaging. “It depends on the goals you are trying to achieve,” he said.

Ninety five per cent of the biscuit maker’s range is wrapped in carton board or plastic and Pamplin said the sustainable packaging strategy for the company in recent years has been focused on achieving thinner films, reducing the amount of material used, while simultaneously ensuring product integrity is maintained.

“Packaging can not be viewed in isolation and for us product protection is paramount.

Any gains in packaging reduction or ease of recycling are destroyed by increased food waste. We look at total pack performance not individual layers in isolation and we must protect our products from moisture and oxygen,” he explained.

And he maintains that the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) resulting from the waste of one digestive biscuit is the carbon footprint equivalent of 48 biscuit wrappers.

Micron measures

The average weight for all UB’s wrappers, said Pamplin, is three grams to 400 grams of product, with most of its primary wrappers less than 40 micron. In addition, he said the firm has achieved a 13 per cent packaging reduction in the past seven years.

Pamplin argues that as its ratio of packaging to product is already high on an sector by sector comparison within the food and drink industry, the company, as a result, has not signed up to the second phase of the UK government backed sustainable packaging initiative, the Courtauld Commitment (CC2).

"We do not believe we can achieve a further 10 per cent saving in the next three years and have not signed up to CC2 due to this fact. However, we will strive to focus on achieving our own packaging target of a 20 per cent reduction by 2015 on a 2003 baseline,” he added.

The biscuit maker tries to use recycled material whenever it can, said Pamplin, but that in terms of ensuring product integrity the pros and cons of different materials have to be weighed up. Recycled board for example, he said, does not always give the same physical protection as virgin board.

Bioplastics trialled

And the company, continues Pamplin, has trialled various biopolymers including cellulose and polylactic acid (PLA) in house and also undertakes quarterly meetings with packaging converters to look at ways of improving the functionality of bioplastics. He said though that the results so far have been disappointing.

“There have been no real advances made in enhancing the barrier properties of biopolymer materials in the past two years, and we found a 50 per cent reduction in shelf life coupled with a 300 per cent hike in costs on the pilot project we conducted on these with our products,” said Pamplin.

Moreover, the debate whether bioplastics, specifically (PLA), can be recycled with mainstream PET continues, he added.

Plastic recovery push

Technically, stresses Pamplin, the polypropylene biscuit wraps that United Biscuits uses can be recycled but currently there is very little mixed plastic recycling in the UK as the capacity to reprocess it is limited.

He argues that a more integrated approach from local authorities, the recycling sector, waste management companies along with the main packaging stakeholders is needed to achieve greater recovery of plastics from the UK waste stream.

Clear, simple and consistent kerbside recycling schemes and investment in cutting edge waste segregation technology will encourage consumers to recycle and will improve collection rates: “Consumers, according to our research, want their lives made easier in this regard,” he states.

Perhaps, he said the UK could look to the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany which have much higher recovery of plastic from the waste stream as those countries have endorsed the approach of converting plastic packaging waste to fuel.

Supply chain metrics

In term of ensuring joined up supply chain thinking on making packaging greener, he said that UB currently does not have a specific set of metrics that it issues to suppliers but he said the company is auditing suppliers through the Sedex system.

Sedex, the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange, is a non-profit organisation established in 2001 by a group of UK retailers and their first tier suppliers to share ethical data pitched at businesses eager to improve their ethical performance.

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