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Waitrose in the UK has announced a world-first packaging move to fibre-based trays from Huhtamaki to replace black plastic for its Italian ready meal range. PKN asks Biopak's Richard Fine if this is an option local retailers are looking at.

High-end UK retailer Waitrose has opted for the new trays, called Fresh, manufactured by the global food packaging specialist Huhtamaki and packed at Saladworks UK. The fibre used as the base material comes from the Swedish forest company Södra. The trays can be recycled, and are also certified for home composting. The tray being used by Waitrose is suitable for conventional and microwave ovens.

The project has been in the works since 2016, and is in line with Waitrose & Partners' commitment to move out of black plastic by 2019.

Nikki Grainge, packaging development manager from Waitrose & Partners in the UK, said: "We have been testing the new trays since May 2018 and have received very positive feedback from our customers. Now, with the current launch on Italian range moving to the new tray, we'll be able to move nearly nine million meals out of black plastic."

According to Steve Davey, project manager from Huhtamaki in the UK, the project started with the aim to find alternative food packaging for trays made from black plastic, most often CPET.

"The reason to avoid this material is not only its fossil origin but also because it is problematic to recycle due to the detection systems used in end-of-life material separation," he said.

An important accelerator was the EU's Bio Based Industries Joint Undertaking program for research and innovation, securing the initial funding and helping build the core team. The team wanted to spearhead the new concept in the UK, which is one of the most significant markets for ready meals in Europe.

What's happening in Australia?

Supplier of compostable and fibre-based food packaging solutions Biopak's Richard Fine told PKN his company sees significant interest from retailers and ready meal producers in its fibre-based solutions and the company is already conducting trials to validate functional performance.

He acknowledges that there are application limitations: "Currently MAP is not an option for compostable fibre trays, which may limit the uptake for these applications," he says. "Fibre-based trays can be laminated with a compostable film which allows them to be used for packaging wet meals; however, the lamination trays cannot be heated in a conventional oven. It is possible to laminate fibre trays with conventional plastics -- this reduces the amount of plastic needed when compared to conventional plastic trays but renders the trays non-compostable and non-recyclable."

Commenting on Waitrose's shift away from black plastic trays, Fine notes that in Australia black plastic trays do not currently get recycled as they are not able to be detected and separated at the MRFs (black trays absorb the near infra light used in the optical scanners). "Some businesses have opted to use a clear polypropylene (PP) tray instead of black to overcome the problem. There are special black pigments that can be detected at MRFs. High barrier multi-layer plastic trays used for MAP are also not able to be recycled," he said.

Fine adds: "With the current recycling crisis, and the fact that in 2016-2017 Australia only recycled 11.8 per cent of all plastic (Source: 2017-17 Australian Plastics Recycling Survey Report), I would suggest that hardly any food contaminated plastics are being recycled.

"Of the 3.5 million tonnes of plastic consumed in Australia [in the reporting period], only 294,000 tonnes were recycled. Of the plastic that was collected for recycling in Australia, only 45 per cent was processed locally, with 56 per cent sent offshore -- the offshore option is no longer available," he says.

Compostable packaging is beneficial when used for applications where food residues will remain in the pack, according to Fine. "The number of compost facilities that accept compostable food service packaging is growing. There are a growing number of commercial composters in NSW, VIC, WA, SA and QLD who all accept certified compostable packaging," he said. "In South Australia, packaging that is certified compostable to Australian Standards AS4736 is accepted in kerbside green waste bins."

To those who argue that fibre-based packaging is not a solution due to lack of composting infrastructure, Fine says they must also acknowledge that the plastic alternatives are currently mostly ending up in landfill and the environmental damage caused by the extraction of fossil resources for the production of plastic should also be taken into account.

"Until the plastic recycling industry is reformed and the technology is available to recycle plastic food packaging back to plastic food packaging, it would be better to use life cycle analysis (LCA) data to determine which product has the smallest environmental impact," he concludes.

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