Eco Food Packaging

At Westpak, we pride ourselves on being true experts in eco food packaging. Part of this expertise lies in our understanding that packaging sustainability is a highly complex topic driven by various considerations from stakeholders across businesses. To effectively assess these requirements, it’s essential to have a comprehensive understanding of the latest terminology, developments and principles that underlie the broader sustainability and eco movement. Below, you’ll find detailed explorations of various sustainability issues, from commonly asked questions around recycling through to definitions and defining properties for a range of sustainability terms and materials.

Eco Food Packaging FAQs

The number of common questions that surround the theme of sustainability and its relationship to food packaging are vast. However, we’ve broken-down a handful of some of the most frequently asked questions to offer greater clarity on a range of issues. These include the defining differences between compostable and biodegradable packaging, identifying packaging sustainability credentials, and the industry’s overall latest developments.

The terms ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ should not be used interchangeably. Biodegradable packaging products should be able to break down naturally. This natural process follows three key stages: ‘biodeterioration’, ‘biofragmentation’, and ‘assimilation’. Compostable food packaging, by contrast, requires more specific environmental factors in order to successfully be broken-down. This can may include certain temperature or moisture level thresholds, for example. Such products will also vary in their ability to be recycled. Paper and card-based food packaging products, for example, are compostable and are also recyclable. By contrast, Biopolymer and Bio-plastic products classed as compostable are not recyclable.

The terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ are often used broadly in their application, but share a common concern for various ecologically detrimental processes. ‘Sustainability’ gained prominence as term following the publication of the ‘Brundtland Report’ in 1987, which positioned the concept around economic, social and ecological considerations. The term is generally seen as relating to the idea of a harmonised relationship between human life and environmental considerations. The term ‘eco-friendly’ is concerned purely with environmental considerations. While broad in its use, it refers to the idea of products and processes having the smallest possible negative impact on the environment.

At Westpak, we realise that while packaging sustainability may be a vital consideration for both stakeholders and consumers, it isn’t necessarily simple. We work with businesses at key points in the food distribution chain to realise their sustainability goals while minimising disruption and risks to their business model. We can advise on an array of various, complex environmental packaging attributes such as whether it is recycled, recyclable, re-useable, biodegradable, compostable etc. We can also advise on the pros and cons of each attribute, the extent of their mutual exclusivity and the broad sustainable impact of each option. We can also advise on the suitability of each option for the most seamless integration with your current businesses model.

Recyclable items of packaging are those which are able to be recycled at their end-of-life stage. Recycled packaging, by contrast, is that which already contains previously recycled materials. A key reacted term is ‘recycled content’ which refers to the ratio of recycled material present in the new product. This ratio can vary significantly for different recycled products.

In the UK, various symbols are used to indicate the environmental characteristics of certain products and packaging. ‘Recycle’ and ‘Rinse | Recycle’ symbols are commonly shown on items that are widely processed for recycling. Some products may also often show nominations of ‘recycle’ and ‘don’t recycle’ icons indicating that certain parts of the item can be recycled with other part will need to be removed and processed separately.

Various other symbols and icons are used with varying meanings. ‘The green dot’ symbol, can often be misinterpreted, as it only signifies that the producer has made contributions to recycling efforts. The symbol does not actually necessarily correlate with any recyclable properties of the item itself. Similarly, the icons known as the ‘mobs loop’ only signifies that the item in question is able to potentially be recycled. Recyclable plastics, however, are often more clearly marked through being assigned a number as part of the ‘resin identification code’. Numbers from 1-7 are assigned to different plastics in accordance with their specific recyclable properties. Paper and cardboard items will often show the ‘recycle’ or ‘Rinse | Recycle’ icons. In addition, such products may also show the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo where they have been sourced from forest that adhere to the FSC’s standards.

Products recognised as being industrially compostable to EN 13432/14955 standards will often show a ‘seedling’ logo. Many items will also show a ‘home composting’ logo which signifies the products can be composted under more natural, non-industrial processes.

More generic terms on various forms of packaging, such as ‘eco-friendly’, can often be misleading for consumers due to specific ways products may need to be processed at the end-of-life stage to ensure their green credentials are realised.

We use over twenty materials in our packaging products. This includes kraft paper, Blown Bended Polythene, Biaxially-oriented polypropylene (BOPP), Cardboard (with additional CPET and PE coatings), Cartonboard, Corrugated Cardboard, Expanded polystyrene (EPS), Glass Fibre, High-density polyethylene HDPE, Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), Metals, Polyethylene (PE), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and Recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET). All these materials are listed in our sustainability glossary with details on each including their recyclable and/or other environmental credentials.

Sustainability around packaging continues to be the primary trend for the UK food packaging industry. While there are notable differences in compostable and biodegradable packaging, or recyclable and recycled packaging, this broad array of ‘sustainable’ solutions is drawn together by a clear preference over non-recyclable packaging that moves directly from single use to landfill disposal. 2022 will also see a ‘plastic tax’ introduced on plastic with minimal or absent recycled materials. One of the largest supermarket chains, Tesco, has also recently announced that it has removed more than 1 billion pieces of plastic from its UK business. We have also seen rising popularity in reusable packaging, particularly in grocery retail stores. Dispensing stations for grocery goods such as pastas and cereals may increase in popularity.

Eco Food Packaging Glossary Introduction

Keeping pace with the expanding range of the food packaging industry’s sustainability terminology can be challenging. Not only are the various themes numerous and constantly expanding, but many terms are regularly applied inaccurately or used interchangeably with other terms that differ in meaning. Through our glossary below, we want to provide a clear reference point for transparency and consistency around the terms that underpin the latest sustainabile packaging discussions.

Category: Food Packaging Materials

Bio-based materials are those derived from living matter (biomass). Such materials can be highly processed and manufactured and used in a variety of packaging applications.

Bagasse is a material created from recycling sugarcane. Moisture is pressed out of the sugarcane leaving a dry, fibrous material which can then be moulded into various shapes. Bagasse is a frequently used material in the packaging industry and is fully compostable. Outside off packaging applications, Bagasse is also commonly used a fuel.

‘BOPP’ stands for ‘biaxially-oriented polypropylene’ and is a variation of polypropylene whereby the material is stretched. This plastic material features a number of advantageous attributes including water resistance, fatigue resistance and low toxicity levels. BOPP films are widely used in food packaging.
Cardboard is a term used to describe paper-based materials that are significantly more robust and damage-resistant than paper. Cardboard is made of a thick paper stock while ‘corrugated cardboard’ is comprised of several layers with a ‘fluted’ inner layer.
Cartonboard is made from multiple layers of pulp/cellulose fibres usually taken from wood or waste paper. This multi-layered structure is one of the key defining differences between cartonboard and paperboard. Cartonboard boasts a range of environmental friendly attributes including being fully recyclable and carrying a relatively low carbon footprint.
Cartonboard is made from multiple layers of pulp/cellulose fibres usually taken from wood or waste paper. This multi-layered structure is one of the key defining differences between cartonboard and paperboard. PE stands for Polyethylene and is the world’s most commonly used plastic. CPET, which stands for crystallised polyethylene terephthalate, is a variation on PET whereby the material have been crystallised to enhance its resistance to heat and to boost its overall rigidity. This makes it highly suitable to various food and drink packaging requirements.
Cartonboard is made from multiple layers of pulp/cellulose fibres usually taken from wood or waste paper. This multi-layered structure is one of the key defining differences between cartonboard and paperboard. PE stands for Polyethylene and is the world’s most commonly used plastic.
Corrugated cardboard is comprised of a ‘fluted’ inner layer between two ‘liner’ layers. The material is commonly used for making box packaging across a multitude of industries. Corrugated cardboard is widely recyclable.
Crystallised poly lactic acid (CPLA) is the crystallised form of poly lactic acid (PLA). The material is substantially more heat resistant compared with standard PLA making it ideal for food packaging applications. The crystallisation process also does not reduce any of the materials compostable properties, ensuring it remains an environmentally-friendly option.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is plastic foam material. EPS has a number of characteristics that make it ideal for various packing applications. These include its low weight, low moisture absorption and compression resistance. As well as being widely used as set shapes, EPS is also frequently used as packaging ‘peanuts’, providing damage protection to breakable or delicate items. EPS is a fully recyclable material but unfortunately is often not processed in many facilities.
The term ‘glass fibre’ refers to the material comprised of very thin strands (or ‘fibres’) of glass. Glass fibres are often used for their strong reinforcing and insulating properties. The term ‘fibreglass’ tends to be used to refer more specifically to a certain type of plastic which is reinforced with glass fibres. Fibreglass can sometimes be referred to as ‘glass fibre reinforced plastic’, ‘glass reinforced plastic’ or simply ‘GRP’.
HDPE stand for ‘High-density polyethylene’ or ‘polyethylene high-density’ is an incredible versatile plastic found in household products across the world and is renowned for its very high ‘strength-to-density’ ratio. HDPE plastic can be produced in rigid and flexible form and is widely recyclable.
Kraft, or sometimes called ‘Kraft paper’ or ‘Sack kraft paper’, is a paper-based material renowned for its strength. The paper is usually pale-brown, although white, bleached kraft paper is also widely used. Kraft paper is highly resistant to ripping, making it ideal for a variety of applications throughout the packaging industry. The paper is recyclable, but this can be limited in instances where additional coatings are applied in the manufacturing process.

Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is a plastic made from the monomer ethylene. The material’s toughness and high flexibility make it ideal for various film and shrink-wrap uses and as well as for packaging that requires heat-sealing. LDPE can be recycled.

Metals are minerals extracted form the earth and are typically conductive of heat and electricity. Aluminium and steel are among the most commonly used metals for food packaging. Aluminium, in particular is one of the most widely used packaging materials in the world. Aluminium is widely recyclable.

Moulded fibre, also referred to as ‘pulp paper’ or ‘moulded pulp’, is a commonly used packaging material made from recycled paperboard and other fibres. The material can be used for trays, barriers and other similar applications as well as for protective packaging. Moulded fibre is seen as a highly sustainable option and can be recycled again at end-of-life.

PE stands for Polyethylene and is the world’s most commonly used plastic. Packaging remains one of the materials primarily applications due to its light weight and versatility. Polyethylene is recyclable.

Polyethylene terephthalate, sometimes abbreviated as ‘PET’ or ‘PETE’, is a plastic material which belongs to the polyester family of polymers. The material is widely used across the packaging industry for food products as well as a vast array of other consumer goods.

Polylactic acid, or polylactide (PLA) is a bioplastic made from renewable resources such as sugar cane or corn starch. As such, it represents a more environmentally-friendly and sustainable alternative to traditional, non bio-plastics such as polyethene terephthalate (PET). Polylactic acid offer many of the same attributes and qualities as traditional plastics, making it viable for many packaging applications. It is also a compostable material.

PP is the abbreviated term for ‘Polypropylene’ (also known by many as ‘Polypropene’) and is one of the most widely used plastics in the world. The material is tough with a good resistance to both heat and fatigue. PP is a recyclable material and has a resin identification code of ‘5’.

‘PP Acrylic’ is a term used with reference to adhesive tapes. Polypropylene (PP) refers to the plastic material while ‘Acrylic’ refers specifically to the type of adhesive used.

PVC stands for ‘Polyvinyl chloride’. PVC can be manufactured as either rigid or flexible variants and is used for a massive number of applications across the world. The term’ Vinyl’ is commonly used with reference to PVC adhesive tape.

Recycled paper and card are widespread in their prevalence and applications across the packaging industry and beyond. By continuing the recycling process, materials are diverted away from being discarded.

rPET stands for ‘recycled polyethylene terephthalate’, or ‘recycled PET’. polyethylene terephthalate, sometimes abbreviated as ‘PET’ or ‘PETE’, is a plastic material widely used across the packaging industry for food products and other consumer goods.

The term ‘Solvent’ refers to the use of ‘rubber adhesive solvents’ in adhesive packaging tapes. Solvent tapes offer a range of benefits including a high ‘grab’ level as well as being highly resistant to low temperatures.

‘Stretch film’, also referred to as ‘stretch wrap’, can be manufactured through ‘blown’ or ‘cast’ techniques. Blown stretch wrap is created by blowing resin into a bubble, which is then adapted into rolls. Cast stretch wrap, by contrast, is made by rolling resin. Blown stretch film is regarded as a more robust product, while cast stretch film is often utilised for its shinier finish.

Sustainable forest management looks to balance various considerations and interests with regard to the use of forests as a valuable resource. This may include replanting trees in place where established trees have been cut down, protecting biodiversity and many other factors. Paper and wood as recourses can be sourced from sustainable forests to support this process. Responsibly sourced wood, paper, and other similar products often feature the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification.

Category: Packaging Recycling & End-of-Life Processing

End-of-life (also commonly abbreviated to ‘EOL’) refers to the stage at which a product no longer provides a use or value to the end user. This stage marks the point at which the product may be processed in a range of ways depending on its various materials. This can include recycling, composting, discarded etc.

For an item to be biodegradable it needs to be able to be decomposed by various micro-organisms. Biodegradation is comprised of three key stages: biodeterioration, biofragmentation, and assimilation. The terms ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are not interchangeable. Biodegradable products should be able to break down naturally, whereas compostable products require more specific environmental factors, such as temperature. Some biodegradable and compostable products, such as Biopolymer and Bio-plastic, are not recyclable.

Chemical recycling breaks polymers back into monomers. Chemical recycling is seen as a valuable additional process to ‘mechanical recycling’ which, alone, would not be able to break down such materials.

In a circular economy waste and pollution are eliminated, with materials continuing to be used for as long as possible. The circular economy also embraces renewable energy. This economic model is in sharp contrast to the traditional ‘linear economy’.

Closed loop recycling seeks to turn recyclable waste products into the same product again for re-use. A major example would be recycling waste aluminium drinks cans back into new drinks cans. Closed-loop recycling aims to avoid ‘downcycling’.

Commercial composting facilities are able to process large quantities of organic waste using aerobic decomposition. Industrial composting can be comprised of three approaches: windrow, in-vessel, and aerated static pile composting.

Compostable materials are differentiated from biodegradable materials. There are multiple types of compostable packaging, some of which will require professional composting facilities in order to be broken down due to temperature requirements. Compostable products also vary in their ability to be recycled. Paper and card-based products, for example, are compostable and are also recyclable. By contrast, Biopolymer and Bio-plastic products classed as compostable are not recyclable.

‘Downcycling’, sometimes referred to as ‘cascading’, is the process of recycling materials into a different product which has a reduced value or quality than the original item. This is often due to the breaking down of chemical and materials in the recycling process.

In-vessel composting is an industrial composting technique whereby a variety of organic waste are deposited into large containers which mix the content to ensure aeration. This process also allows a high level of control over variables such as temperature.

Landfills are designated areas where waste can be permanently deposited. To minimise contamination with the surrounding environment, many landfill sites are lined with strong materials with waste deposited into ‘cells’ before being ‘capped’. How successfully buried waste is isolated from the surrounding environment may vary from site to site. A number of landfill operators will also use the sites for the purposes of recycling and waste sorting.

Mechanical recycling is a process whereby plastics are turned into new plastic materials and products. This process causes minimal structural changes to the plastic material itself. The process involves several key stages.

Post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials are those which have been recycled into new products having previously fulfilled their original purpose. A major example is plastic packaging being recycled into new plastic consumer goods.
In its simplest sense, recyclable packaging is made from materials that can be separately collected, processed and used again in some form.
Recycling streams refer to the categories into which products or materials can be assigned, as relevant to the recycling process. ‘Single stream’ recycling refers to the process of collecting recyclable products comprised of multiple materials including plastics, glass and cardboard.
A resin identification code specifies what type of plastic a package or product is made from, such as PET or polypropylene (PP). Then assigned number can also signify to the extent to, and ease with which the material may be recycled.
For an item to be ‘reusable’ it must be able to be used multiple times for its intended purpose. Reusable packaging is designed and manufactured to be sufficiently durable and hard-wearing to accommodate this continued long-term usage.
With single-stream recycling, various recyclable waste items are collected without first being separated by material type. One of the main benefits of single-stream recycling is a potential for more recycling to be collected by removing the need for prior sorting from residents.

Category: General Packaging Sustainability Terminology

A carbon footprint relates to the quantity of carbon dioxide emitted due to a particular process, person, business etc. The packaging industry aims to reduce its associated carbon footprint through various initiatives, processes, materials and technologies.

‘Downgauging’ is a similar concept to ‘lightweighting’. Packaging weight is reduced through the strict use of thinner materials.

Being ‘eco-conscious’ (sometimes written as ‘ecoconscious’) simply means for an individual to have an awareness of environmental issues and to embrace lifestyle changes to minimise their environmental impact.

Eco-friendly products are those which have been manufactured to have the most minimal negative environmental impact. The terms can be used widely and, at times, can be misleading for consumers due to specific ways in which products may need to be used or disposed of in order to truly be ‘eco-friendly’.

Energy-efficiency (sometimes referred to as ‘energy efficient use’) is the aim to deliver as much use as possible from a product from as little energy as possible. Energy efficient products will need to offer superior performance or improved longevity for the same energy expenditure than energy inefficient versions of the same item. Similarly, energy elfin products may offer the same level of performance or power as more inefficient items but use far less energy in doing so.

The term ‘finite resources’ is often used interchangeably with ‘non-renewable resources’. The term is used to describe resources for which there is a limited supply and where the rate of regeneration cannot keep pace with the rate of consumption. Fossil fuels are a major example.

Greenhouse gases are those which absorb heat given from the earth’s surface and radiate this back into our atmosphere, a process known more commonly as ‘the greenhouse effect’. Some of the most commonly occurring greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapour. An abundance of these gases generated from industrial activities is the leading cause of climate change. This, in turn, causes a range of highly detrimental effects.

Life-cycle assessment, or LCA, is the process of analysis and assessing the environmental impact caused by each individual stage within a certain product’s life-cycle. This assessment begins from the extraction of raw materials, running through to the product’s production, usage and end-of-life processes.
Lightweighting’ is an approach to packaging that aims to reduce the weight of packaging used to provide various environmental benefits . These can include reducing energy consumption and reduced transport costs.
Renewable resources are often discussed in conjunction with renewable energy. These resources are renewable and sustainable in that they are regenerative or endless in their supply. One of the most notable examples of renewable resources includes ‘biomass’, a resource derived from living material.
‘Responsible resourcing’ is a wide term to encompass various sustainability considerations in the supply chain of goods and materials. The issue centres around transparency of the supply chain, often reaching back to the initial stage of production. Various certifications can be given in recognition of responsible resourcing. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), for example, has a system of forest certification and product labelling to indicate responsibly sourced wood, paper, and other similar products.
Sustainable materials management (SMM) is an approach that studies full product lifecycles and aims to sustainably manage materials throughout, over the long-term. This focuses on the full product lifestyle differentiates SMM from approaches that only tend to focus on the end-of-life options.
‘Sustainability’ gained prominence as term following the publication of the ‘Brundtland Report’ in 1987. This focused on 3 core elements – economic, social and ecological, all being intertwined. Sustainability, in this sense, explored the idea of satisfying present needs without inhibiting the ability for future generations to do the same. Accordingly, the term also promotes the idea that resources should be depleted at a slower rate than their natural regeneration. In a more contemporary sense,’sustainability’ is broad in its application, often combining various factors. The term is generally seen as relating to the idea of a harmonised relationship between human life and environmental considerations. ‘Sustainable development’, as a frequently accompanied term, refers to the processes enacted in pursuit of this.
Water efficiency is concerned with measuring the amount of water required for a given process against the amount of water actually used. Therefore, the primary concern of water efficiency is related to minimising waste. Many in the manufacturing industry are placing an increasing emphasis on their water efficiency and sustainability practices.

Featured Eco Packaging News

We regularly post updates on the latest sustainability news, including details on our own product ranges and bespoke packaging solutions as well as core sustainability highlights  from the wider grocery and foodservice industries. Discover some of our latest sustainability updates below or click here to view our view library of sustainability news.

In November 2021, WRAP launched the Water Roadmap with the support of 65 stakeholders and food businesses, embarking on a collective journey to address water risk in our food & drink supply chain. The Roadmap is a key implementation framework for the Courtauld Commitment 2030 water target that 50% of the UK’s fresh food is sourced from areas with sustainable water management.
Young people have revealed concerns that the pathway to Net Zero will exacerbate the class divide, according to new research from Co-op and its charity, the Co-op Foundation. The study explored the views of 16-24 year olds when thinking about the journey to Net Zero, including the risks and opportunities for young people.

Get In Touch

Our team are on hand to discuss how we can utilise our expertise in packaging sustainability to help fulfil your business’s unique needs. Contact us today on 01322 284455 or by emailing [email protected].

Westpak Group Ltd, 2024   |   Bold Thinking, Reliable Execution

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Westpak Group Ltd, 2022
Bold Thinking, Reliable Execution