Steve Millward, General Manager at Bakers Basco looks at how reusable packaging is integral to reducing waste in the food chain. Cauliflower steaks have been all over the news recently. Basically, they consist of two slices of cauliflower in a plastic tray, with a plastic pouch of sauce, all protected by plastic film – for around £2.00 a go.
Predictably, there was a social media storm, with consumers pointing out that a whole cauliflower could be bought for as little as 69p, and that the volume of plastic used in the product was symptomatic of the plastic scourge facing modern society.
This all blew up around the same time as Theresa May announced a proposal for plastic-free aisles in supermarkets, as part of a wider government plan to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042.
Walk into any supermarket or corner store, and you’ll be faced with shelf upon shelf of food and drink products, many of them in plastic packaging. To the consumer’s eyes, these products often appear to be swaddled in more plastic than seems absolutely necessary.
We can just hope that wherever possible these packs are recyclable – and that consumers and local authorities are doing their part in making sure they get recycled, with raw materials fed back into the packaging supply chain.
But what you see on the shop shelves is just part of the story. Behind the scenes, plastic is widely used in the food and drink industry – but major steps have been taken to reduce its impact on the environment.
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 plastic bread baskets.
These 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 also been designed to optimise the use of space, both in stores and in vans. The latter point is hugely important: you want as little wasted space in lorries as possible, to reduce ‘road miles’.
They offer significant advantages over the alternative, which some bakeries still use, of cardboard trays.
Our mantra is: Reuse, Reduce, Repair, Recycle. There’s a lot of other ‘Rs’ we could chuck in as well, but these four are the most important.
We Reuse our baskets (and the dollies, the wheeled trollies which are used to move around stacks of baskets) as much as possible (Repairing them when we have to). Our baskets and dollies Reduce logistics costs and fuel consumption. We only Recycle when a basket has reached the end of its useful life.
We’ve got four million baskets and 500,000 dollies in our pool, which we supply to 25 of the UK’s biggest bakers and which travel millions of miles each year.
But we’re just one, relatively small, part of the whole food supply chain. There are other sectors which are also using reusable plastic pallets, crates and packs – drinks companies, for example.
The point is, plastic isn’t the enemy here: it’s how we use it that’s the problem.
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 let’s also integrate this approach throughout the whole supply chain – 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.
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.
Bakers Basco was set up by five of the UK’s leading plant bakers in 2006 to buy, manage and police the use of a standard basket for the delivery of bread to retailers and wholesalers. The company currently manages a pool of approximately four million Omega Baskets, which are used by bakers including Allied Bakeries, Fine Lady Bakeries, Frank Roberts & Sons, Hovis and Warburtons to deliver bread to their customers.