Why can’t brands pack in their plastic obsession?

12 : 01 : 2018 Packaging : Branding : Food And Drink
Super-Synthetics by Maria Idicula Kurian, London Super-Synthetics by Maria Idicula Kurian, London

What May’s announcement demonstrates is that plastic pollution is something that private enterprise finds it almost impossible to wean itself off of.

Peter Maxwell, senior journalist, LS:N Global

This week Marks & Spencer were shamed into cancelling further orders of their “cauliflower steak” dish, part of its new ‘Veggie’ range. Individually packaged in its own plastic tray and yours for only £2, the story acts as a case study of how tone deaf many brands remain to public intolerance of excess food packaging.

The speed at which social media called out producers exploiting consumers’ love of convenience provided the perfect backdrop for Theresa May’s announcement to reduce plastic waste over the next 25 years. The prime minster’s environmental strategy includes proposals such removing plastic cutlery from workplaces and charging a levy on single-use plastic containers, the latter inspired by the success of the 5p fee for plastic bags, which has resulted in a 90% decline in use since its inauguration in 2014. This policy will now also be enforced at smaller retailers.

2017 was something of an annus horribilis for the plastic packaging industry, with revelations such as the 18 tonnes of detritus found on Henderson Island in the South Pacific, one of the remotest locations on earth, shocking a global audience. Similarly, the story of the lobster caught off the coast of New Brunswick, US, with a Pepsi logo embedded in its claw dominated people’s Facebook feeds and demonstrated the increasingly negative equation between disposable branded packaging and consumer sentiment.

What May’s announcement demonstrates is that plastic pollution is something that private enterprise finds it almost impossible to wean itself off without government regulation. Indeed it is forecast that there will be 40% rise in global plastic production over the next decade.

That there can be so much cognitive dissonance about packaging strategies within the confines of one brand perhaps shows the scale of the challenge.

While brands often pay lip service to tackling this issue – see Wetherspoons’ recent ban on drinking straws or Pret’s experiment with reusable glass bottles – they rarely represent a holistic, wholesale reappraisal of their approach to pre-packaged products.

Admittedly this is a truly onerous task for any business, covering everything from product design to supply chain management, store design to staff training. But with increasing awareness amongst their customers that the plastic that covers their groceries is now massively infiltrating the food chain, superfluous trays, troughs, lids and sachets are starting to turn the public’s collective stomach.

And there isn’t a shortage of viable alternatives. Last year Swedish supermarket ICA began testing a new laser-based labelling system for fruits and vegetables, a technology that’s been dubbed ‘natural branding’. ‘By using natural branding on all the organic avocados we would sell in one year we will save 200km (135 miles) of plastic 30cm wide,’ Peter Hagg, ICA business unit manager, told the Guardian. ‘It’s small but I think it adds up.’ The irony is that one UK supermarket is trialling a similar approach: Marks & Spencer. That there can be so much cognitive dissonance about packaging strategies within the confines of one brand perhaps shows the scale of the challenge for those wishing to transform attitudes across the entire industry.

For one vision of what a post-packing future looks like, read our latest Far Futures scenario.