Sustainable packaging: How are start-ups ‘thinking outside the box’ for snacks and booze?

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Agile start-ups are responding to consumer demand for more sustainably packaged food and drink. GettyImages/ugurhan
Agile start-ups are responding to consumer demand for more sustainably packaged food and drink. GettyImages/ugurhan

Related tags Sustainable packaging

From reducing film in snack packets to reinventing the wine bottle, how are food and drink start-ups getting creative with sustainable packaging?

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

Food packaging is notoriously difficult to reuse and recycle, due to the safety and shelf-life qualities multi-layered and flexible packaging brings to the product. In the convenience drinks sector, packaging and transport are considered the two biggest pain points. And of course, the heavier the packaging, the more energy it takes to transport.

At the same time, the UK is working to decarbonise all sectors of its economy to meet its net zero target by 2050. Consumers, too, want to reduce their carbon footprint through the food choices they make​.

As pressure builds to reduce carbon footprints and respond to consumer demand for more sustainable food and drink, agile start-ups are reimagining conventional packaging. FoodNavigator hears how.

Sustainable snacking

The snacking sector faces numerous packaging challenges. Not only are snack foods often fragile, but they are also frequently irregular in shape. Protecting snack foods, all the while ensuring an extended ambient shelf-life, is difficult.

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

UK snacks start-up WARP Snacks – owner of snack brands Eat Real and PROPER – is working to address these. The company has developed a plan to do so, which looks at reducing packaging, investing in renewable materials, reimagining packaging altogether, and stakeholder collaboration.

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

Image source: WARP Snacks

Its PROPER brand, which makes flavoured popcorn and lentil chips, has achieved a reduction – both in weight and dimensions – in the amount of film it uses in its packaging. It has also done the same for the card used in its packets.

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

The company has set itself the challenge of ‘reimagining packaging altogether’ with at least one product by 2025, and is collaborating with other stakeholders via the UK Flexible Plastic Fund, to work on solutions for flexible plastic recycling.

Drinking, and disposing, responsibly

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

Selecting which vessel a brand’s beverage is sold in – from glass, plastic, aluminium or carton – can be a minefield.

While glass can be recycled an infinite number of times, it is often heavy to transport, and therefore energy-intensive. If aluminium cans are made from 100% recycled material, it reduces its footprint considerably – but not all cans are recovered (around 82% in the UK, but just 45% in the US). Carton 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 aluminium cans. Although aluminium cans are infinitely recyclable, when selecting labels for the beverages Soden was surprised to come across some hurdles to recyclability.

Image source: Ace + Freak

“We found that out of the three types of labelling materials, two of them rendered the can unrecyclable,” ​he told delegates at the Future Summit. 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 via upcycling. The company does this in collaboration with its co-packaging facility, whereby Ace + Freak repurposes any excess boxes the third-party may have. “It extends the life of that cardboard…and it costs us less money. And I think [that comes from] that constant mentality of questioning everything.”

Thinking outside the box

The global wine industry is dominated by glass packaging. It is estimated 19bn glass bottles are sold into the global market annually, suggested the sector is more reluctant to move into more sustainable alternatives.

Image source: When in Rome

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

Instead of using glass bottles to sell its Italian imported wine, When in Rome works with three formats: boxed cask wine, 100% recyclable cans, and its brand new paper bottled wine.

The latter is essentially a bag in the shape of a bottle, Rob Malin, CEO of When in Rome, explained. The paper bottle is made from 94% recycled paper and has a carbon footprint 84% lower 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 via a partnership with Carbon Cloud. Malin sees the move as ‘just the start’ of its commitment towards ‘radical transparency’ of the climate impact of its business activities.

Spotlight on infrastructure

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

A multi-sectoral approach, incorporating the public and private sector, as well as consumers, is likely to be the best one the take. And as WARP Snacks’ Sustainability Manager expressed, it may not be the material itself that is the problem, but the ‘system in which they work’.

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

Lack of recycling infrastructure, for example, represents a major hurdle to recycling in the UK. While some flexible film can be recycled when consumers return it to certain retail stores, only WARP’s PROPER brand – which uses a double layer packaging – is eligible.

WARP’s Eat Real brand, on the other hand, uses a triple layer. “This is because we export a lot of that product, so it needs to have different food safety requirements,” ​she explained. As a result, Eat Real films cannot be recycled in the UK.

This is part of the reason WARP is looking to collaborate better with stakeholders, we were told: “We can’t solve that in isolation.”

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