We produce far too much non-biodegradable packaging waste, say the environmentalists. We're short of landfill sites and it's damaging the environment. Yet, one potential solution, biodegradable or compostable packaging, has not been the success some of its exponents hoped for. Chris Lyddon reports.

"Everyone is saying we want biodegradable and compostable," Kevin Curran, managing director of UK packaging company Tri-Star Packaging told just-food. "Only very very few have the courage and commitment to pay more for it."

He should know. Last year Tri-Star Packaging launched a unique new sandwich wedge, the first in the world to be fully biodegradable, but despite a lot of interest, sales have been disappointing. "We take environmentally friendly products to the retailers, for producers and packagers and in principle they love it," says Curran. "Then the question is how much? They get to the stage where there is a cost impact and they lose interest."

Curran says he isn't an environmentalist, but his company has a long history of innovations with environmental benefits. "We have led the environmental campaign for food packaging," he says. "We were one of the first companies 14 or 15 years ago to use OPS, which is believed to be more environmentally friendly than PVC. People liked the concept, liked the idea, but didn't want to pay many more."

At the time food companies were convinced that within a few years lawmakers and consumers would force their hand. They expected that they would have to use biodegradable packaging. That hasn't happened.

Tri-Star's biodegradable sandwich wedge is made from Polylactic Acid (PLA) a material derived from maize starch. "A very similar material was launched in the 1980s by ICI," says Curran. "It was called Biopol and was based on a wheat source." The technology is based on extracting lactic acid from a plant source, he explains. The lactic acid is then polymerised, which produces Polylactic Acid, or PLA.

"Cargill Dow Polymers have taken this technology and produced a number of grades that are suitable for fibre production, film manufacture and moulded products," he says. "The big difference with CDP is that they have invested heavily to build a full size plant in the middle of the cornfields in Nebraska." That has helped the Americans cut costs. They are in the middle of a huge maize producing area and they have a 140,000-tonnes-a-year plant. "Previous developments have been limited by small volumes," says Curran. "And high resin prices have severely limited the potential for growth and commercial viability"

Tri-Star is the first company to get a sandwich wedge that is made in the UK from PLA into production on a commercial basis. A US company called Wild Oats does sell food products, including salads, cheese and desserts, in packaging using PLA trays.

"The only thing against it is price," says Curran. "The volume is small so we don't yet have the economies of scale. Therefore, production is more expensive at this stage, but if we don't overcome the initial stage we'll never get to parity."

Marketing advantages

He points out that the material's marketing advantages may mean increased sales, which outweigh the extra cost. "Wild Oats saw initial sales growth which more than compensated for the marginal increase in packaging costs," he says.

Tri-Star's new package looks and works just like a rigid plastic, says Curran. "You have to remind the consumer that it is biodegradable," he says.

He believes that the problem is a lack of courage on the part of the food industry and retailers. Consumers would pay the extra, he believes. "At the moment consumers just put sandwich wrappers in the bin," he says. "If it costs an extra half a penny for it to be biodegradable that's not going to be a problem for them."

Ready packed sandwich buyers, particularly at the quality end of the market, were just not that price sensitive. "When you shop in the top retailers people paying £1.80 for a cup of coffee aren't going to worry about a few extra pence," he says

Meanwhile Curran is getting very frustrated. "There's a lot of people wanting to be seen to be doing something, but when it hits their pocket they become much more reluctant to do down that route," he says. "I'm fed up with everybody talking about it and not doing anything."

Need for a collection system

A further problem for biodegradable packaging is the lack of facilities for dealing with it in the best way. "There's no real initiative for collection," he says. "We've been talking to councils. They have no facilities for collection. You can't take it through the chain.

Environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth want to see more recycling and composting of packaging waste, but they also see the need for it to be part of a system.

"The more that can be recycled and composted the better," Georgina Bloomfield, FoE's recycling campaigner told just-food. "The problem is that a lot of it isn't composted. It needs to be developed within that context."

If it is not composted properly, biodegradable packaging can actually create environmental problems, she says. "In terms of climate change, if it goes into landfill one of the main problems is methane production. If you have biodegradable matter at landfill sites it creates more methane."

"If we focus on seeing that as a solution then we have to look at the wider picture and what is going to be done with it," she says. There was undoubtedly public support. "People think it is a good thing, but you do have to think about where it's going."

One big retailer which has moved to make sandwich packaging biodegradable is Marks and Spencer. In May it announced that it was introducing packaging made only from sustainable resources into its Food to Go aisles. "All sandwich packs (skillets) that would have once been plastic now come in sustainable cardboard packaging, with windows made from cornstarch," the company says.

"Consumers often find plastic sandwich packaging difficult to open and we know our customers are more environmentally aware too.  So, our move towards cardboard-only packaging responds to customer concerns about using only sustainable sources and helps make their lives easier by introducing easy to open packaging too," says Food to Go category manager at Marks & Spencer, Damian Dixon.

Marks & Spencer has been working with Closed Loop London, London Remade and the government backed WRAP (Waste Resources Action Programme) to look at ways of recycling the retailer's recyclable packaging with the aim of creating a recycling loop. This would mean that recyclable material could then be re-used in turn to produce more packaging material.

Food packaging manager at Marks & Spencer, Helene Roberts, explains: "We know our customers feel strongly about the whole issue of recycling.  We're the only retailer going to these lengths and our ultimate aim is to introduce a complete recycling scheme for packaging waste."

That's vital, says Tri-Star's Kevin Curran. "If there's no way of sifting the rubbish, then it doesn't make any difference what they do with their packaging," he says.