Steve Millward, General Manager at bakery equipment company Bakers Basco, argues that reusable plastic products are integral to tackling packaging waste in the food chain.

Plastic is ‘Public Enemy Number One’ right now, and it’s being blamed for all the ills besetting the UK and the wider world. TV news shows footage of mountains of plastic waste or giant islands of plastic tubs, bottles and coffee cups trapped forever in the South Pacific currents, a kind of Sargasso Sea of garbage.

Retailers and restaurant chains are falling over themselves to outdo their rivals in committing to major reductions in plastic use, and, of course, politicians have jumped on the bandwagon. Even UK Prime Minister Theresa May has taken time out from Brexit to call for action against plastic waste.

But while there’s a lot of discussion over how we can reduce the use of disposable plastic packaging for food, drink and other consumer items and make it more recyclable, there’s not a lot of coverage about how the right kind of plastic products, used in the right way, can contribute in a major way to solving the problem – and help companies’ profits.

Plastic isn’t actually the villain it’s made out to be. The real issue is how we use it and what happens to it when we’ve finished with it.

Yes, we should certainly be reducing the amount of disposable plastic packaging that surrounds the stuff we buy lots of, every day. Much of it isn’t recycled properly, either because consumers don’t put it in the recycling bins, it’s not actually recyclable or – and this is shocking – it is recyclable, but local councils haven’t got the facilities to handle that particular type of waste.

Increasing the amount of packaging we recycle is definitely something we should be putting more effort into. But there is another strategy which we should be exploring further in the food and drink industry — reuse.

I’m not talking about packaging products in containers which can be reused for other purposes, or which can be taken back to the retailer or restaurant and refilled. I’m talking about reusable products becoming much more widely accepted as part of the logistics chain, in the form of heavy-duty, long-lasting reusable crates, pallets and baskets – known in the industry as Reusable Transit Packaging (RTP).

UK organisation WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) champions steps to reduce waste and more efficiently use resources. It is supporting a number of schemes looking at the potential benefits of introducing RTP into business sectors which currently don’t use it.

As WRAP says:

“Thousands of tonnes of transit packaging are disposed of every year in the UK, so reusable systems offer significant business and environmental benefits compared with single-trip packaging. The success of such systems depends not only on fit-for-purpose packaging, but also on effective control and management of the closed loop system.”

In our corner of the food industry – bread and other baked goods – most of the UK’s biggest bread producers are working with us and the country’s supermarkets and high street shops to drive the uptake of sturdy, long-lasting reusable plastic bread baskets, as opposed to using other, non-reusable, transit packaging such as cardboard.

We have an equipment pool of four million bread baskets, along with 500,000 wheeled dollies to stack and move them on. The baskets we use last, on average, for eight years; they go out to the stores, they come back to us, they get cleaned and repaired and sent back out, over and over again. They have been designed in consultation with bakers, retailers, equipment manufacturers and logistics experts to optimise the use of space, in depots, stores and in vans, saving storage costs, transport costs, fuel and pollution.

And at the end of their useful life, they get recycled and made into new baskets or other products.

Our baskets can also be used in store to display loaves of bread for shoppers to select. Next time you go into a supermarket, check the bread aisle: if the loaves are displayed from bread baskets, rather than being put on shelf, then the chances are they’re Bakers Basco baskets, which are the same ones that they were delivered to the stockroom in. That can save shop staff time and again maximises the use of the space available.

We aren’t the only supplier of RTP to the food and drink industry. There are probably tens of millions of baskets, crates and pallets made out of heavy-duty plastic and designed to last for years, shuttling backwards and forwards from food manufacturer to depot to retailer, saving a fortune in disposable packaging and never going into landfill.

Plastic RTP equipment can offer significant advantages over the alternative, which some food manufacturers still use, of cardboard boxes and trays. Again, you just have to look at your local supermarket: almost all of them have dumping grounds where they put the old wine boxes and fruit boxes, in the hope that consumers will take them before they have to get sent for recycling.

Yes, cardboard is recyclable – but it’s not reusable. And we’d argue that it’s better to reuse for many years and then recycle, not use something once and recycle it. RTP ticks both of these boxes.

This is plastic as a solution, not as a problem – the products are sturdy, designed for a specific purpose, and they work within a very carefully designed and managed closed-loop system.

There’s a lot of talk about how reducing plastic waste in consumer products will require major behaviour change on the part of consumers, supported by retailers and food manufacturers.

But introducing a Circular Economy RTP system, like the one we operate, requires just as much behaviour change – the only real difference is, we don’t really have to worry about the consumer element of the equation.

Arguably, the closed-loop system is the most important element of any Reusable Transit Packaging scheme. There must be processes in place for the packaging equipment to be:

  • Designed to deliver optimum functionality for the purpose;
  • Delivered to clients at the right time and in the right quantity and collected when necessary;
  • Cleaned regularly;
  • Repaired when needed;
  • Checked for wear and tear and assessed for life-span remaining;
  • Collected when they have reached the end of their useful lives and sent for recycling.

That means that everyone involved – bakers, distributors and retailers – must buy-in to the principles of the scheme and accept they have a part to play in ensuring everything runs smoothly.

We need to address our throwaway mentality. Yes, let’s reduce the profusion of plastic being used in packs sold in our shops. Let’s switch to paper and card wherever possible. Let’s make sure everything that can be packed in recyclable packaging is. Let’s promote recycling with consumers and retailers. Let’s explore options for reusable packaging for consumers – ‘naked’ products which they can use their own reusable packaging for.

But the same throwaway mentality also affects the whole supply chain and that must be addressed – so when products are sent out to retailers, let’s make sure the outer transport packaging is designed to last as long as possible, be easily stackable and storable, optimises space in storage and transport, and, at the end of its useful life, gets recycled, with the raw materials used to create a whole new generation of packaging.

In our company, we’re also looking at integrating new high-tech digital elements into our baskets and dollies which allow us to track them in real time.

In part, this is to help us reduce unauthorised use of our products. Unfortunately, they are incredibly useful – so useful that lots of people ‘borrow’ them (to use a polite phrase) which means we need a special team dedicated to reclaiming them and, where necessary, pursuing the worst offenders through the legal system.

Keeping on top of where are baskets are and who has them also means we can make sure that none of them end up in landfill – unfortunately, the kind of people who use other people’s property without permission are also the kind of people who will just dump them at the side of the road or in the nearest canal rather than pay to dispose of them legally and responsibly.

But looking to the future, and the growth of the Internet of Things and Machine To Machine (M2M) communications, there are obvious potential benefits to the food and drink industry from using trackers in reusable transport packaging, beyond just reducing theft.

If logistics managers can see where their pallets, baskets and crates are at all times, they can improve traffic flow and also get valuable data about what stock is sitting where. Chip-enabled RTP could also help with the introduction of automated systems and driverless vehicles, further driving down logistics costs.

RTP may not be sexy, but it works – it saves time, it saves transport costs, it saves money and it could just help us save the planet.

A version of this article was previously published in Materials Recycling World | 28 April 2018