11 March 2020

Steenbergs Going Plastic Free

Having set Steenbergs the target of removing plastic from packaging in 2020, we have gone plastic free. We've ditched plastic seals on teas and stuffings, and switched from plastic to biomaterials for teas, stuffings, mulled wine spices and refill packs.

We’ve only gone and done it. 

We have worked out how Steenbergs can become plastic-free now.  It has been a long, hard slog to get the final bits of plastic packaging out, but we are there now.  We set ourselves the target of 2020 for going plastic free and have done it in Q1.  It has been difficult in a large part because the retail sector has decided that, since Blue Planet 2, plastic is better for the environment than any of the alternatives - we do not agree with them.

In this blog, I will explain what we have gone with and why.  There will be a few more blogs over the next couple of months on the state of play with plastic and biomaterials in food packaging.

We’ve ditched (reduce) and switched (recycle) as follows:

  • Tamper Seals: The polypropylene plastic tamper seal for teas and stuffings has been removed as the bag inside is sealed which we think is sufficient;
  • Film: Switched to a home compostable biomaterial, made from plants;
  • Refill Bags: Switching to heat-sealable paper bags that are recyclable with paper and card.

So, over the next few months, you will find that our packaging in two areas will switching over to home compostable and recyclable materials – the film is a milky, clear bag instead of clear, and the refill bag is a white bag instead of the black pouches.

The switch has started happening already, but some products have been packed in the old plastic packaging, so there is some legacy material still around.

What were our Sustainability Criteria?

In reviewing the options with the Bionewables Development Centre (part of the University of York), Steenbergs set itself the following key criteria:

  • Works across Steenbergs’ range of products
  • Plastic free
  • No fossil fuels (minerals) in feedstock
  • Home compostable, without any microplastics
  • Or recyclable through kerbside/domestic schemes
  • Environmentally sustainable
  • No genetic modification
  • UK or European made
  • Biodegrades in marine environment

Sustainable Options for Plastic Film

In the past, we packed teas, stuffings and mulled wine products in a clear film from National Flexibles that is polypropylene with a PVdC coating.  But we wanted to get away from this material as it is a mineral-based, non-compostable plastic that is usually burnt in waste-to-energy plants or put into landfill, depending on your council’s policy.  But we have always offered a recycling option via Steenbergs where we recycle the bags through Terracycle.

There are currently three products in the market. 

Tipa, which is used for Ocado and Sainsburys compostable produce bags, is 70 – 80 % from fossil fuels in the home compostable fresh produce bags, for example.  Most of their range is industrially compostable only, so, for example, its version of the composite black pouch can only be industrially composted.  It is not made in the UK.  As such, this did not meet some of our key criteria, so we did not proceed with this product.

Natureflex, which is made by a Japanese owned business in Cumbria, uses a cellophane base, made from wood pulp, using trees mainly from North America.  Unfortunately, this did not meet our production requirements as it would not seal dustier products, like spices, mulling wine sugars and stuffings.  Furthermore, to seal the Natureflex product, there is a PVdC layer on the outside as a moisture barrier and for heat sealing.  This derives from fossil fuels and does generate microplastics in your home compost (or industrial compost), albeit at low levels of 1% of its total weight.

For clarification, to meet the compostable standards EN13432, 95% of the material has to biodegrade within 6 months.  In practice, this means up to 5% can be non-compostable materials, but for Natureflex is c. 1%.  Furthermore, to be called “Plastic Free”, the current requirement is that some of the biomaterial is sustainable and that it meets the EN13432 or Home Compostable standards.  Therefore, to be certified as “Plastic Free”, a film can weirdly contain plastic.

Both Futamura and BDC introduced us to Parkside Flexibles as a possible partner.  With them, we have developed a film that meets almost all our requirements.  This uses the same cellophane core from Natureflex, but it replaces the PVdC with a biomaterial (looks like plastic but is not and gives the film a cloudy look), made from non-GMO corn grown in the EU.  This enables our dustier products to be sealed and is home compostable.  If it inadvertently gets into normal waste chains, it can be burnt via waste-to-energy without any issue and will through time biodegrade in landfill, albeit more slowly in this anaerobic rather than an aerobic environment.  It is a biomaterial, not a plastic.  It is sourced sustainably at the start of its life and can be composted at the end of its life.

Parkside Flexibles is based in Yorkshire.

Suitable Options for Refill Pouches

The plastic pouches for herbs, spices and teas refills or larger quantities cause us another headache.  We have always offered paper bags as an alternative, on request, and still do.  We use paper bags to supply several plastic free, bulk food stores for larger quantities of spices and teas for their stores.

This packaging is a composite, black pouches of metallised PET and PE (polyethylene-terephthalate and polyethylene), which because it is a composite plastic bag cannot be recycled and is burnt or put into landfill.  We hated it.  

But we have always offered a recycling option via Steenbergs where we recycle the bags through Terracycle. 

We are working on an alternative with Sirane, who are based in Telford, so hopefully we will be able to give an update on this soon.

Status on Plastic Free

However, plastic free is no longer on trend.  The window of opportunity for change opened briefly but shut very quickly.  Why, because retailers, the packaging industry and the waste sector closed ranks, supported by environmental activists like Greenpeace, to keep to the status quo and support plastic as the most sustainable option and best for the environment.  Indeed, some of our customers are insisting on Steenbergs providing product in plastic for these reasons.

They are wrong.  While there may be a valid argument in the short term regarding recycling, it is a mistake to close out alternatives like paper and biomaterial as without supporting innovation of alternatives to plastic, there will be no change.  And in the long term, environmental services will be negatively impacted through remarketing plastic as good for the environment.

I will come back to this in my next blog.