Plastic not so fantastic

Plastic pollution earth

With the global pandemic leading a surge in takeaway options, grab and go services and letterbox deliveries, there has been an increased demand for food packaging. However, with meal kits and recipe box services being criticised for their excessive use of plastic wrapping, there is an expectation from consumers for manufacturers and retailers to lead the way in the reduction of single-use plastic within the food industry.

Following the Budget in 2017, the UK Government called for an exploration into using the tax system as a means of challenging single-use plastic waste. Four years later, with this new tax set to be introduced into our system, here’s what you need to know about the plastic packaging tax…

  • The tax begins from 1st April 2022
  • Encourages a reduction in the use of single-use plastic
  • Promotes the recycling of plastic waste to avoid its disposal via landfill or incineration
  • Tax applies to plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled plastic
  • Applies to plastic packaging manufactured in and imported to the UK
  • Defined as plastic packaging if it contains more plastic by weight than any other product
  • Stands at £200 per metric tonne on plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled plastic
  • Poses a significant impact on businesses manufacturing, importing and buying plastic packaging in the UK
  • There will be additional administrative and training cost implications.


The campaign to reduce plastic is particularly driven by millennials and Generation Z (roughly defined as being born between 1995 and 2010). As Chelsey Wroe, Head of Sustainability for Heineken UK explains, these consumers “expect brands to continue to improve their sustainability credentials and are more inclined to interact with the ones that do this.”

Whilst it has been reported that food product innovation may have taken a side-line during the pandemic, the development of more sustainable packaging solutions alongside strategies to reduce single-use plastics is a high priority for manufacturers and retailers.

As a certified carbon-negative manufacturer, Real Wrap Company use sandwich and wrap boxes that are all plastic free. Replacing the usual plastic film with cellulose sourced from trees, this means that the whole box is easily recycled and can be put in the mixed or card recycling points. Following suit, retailer Aldi are also introducing a trial of fully recyclable sandwich packaging. Launching across two sandwich lines from September 2021, the sandwich boxes are made of recycled cardboard, with a paper-lined film rather than the usual plastic film window.

With different properties to plastic, the manufacture of paper packaging means that machines usually meant for plastic must be adapted to suit a more fragile material. We may question whether paper is as good at keeping products fresh and how strong it is, especially when exposed to moisture.

Reducing single-use plastic whilst ensuring that food packaging still meets the standards required comes with numerous challenges. As the British Meat Industry explains, plastic is used in packaging as it is light, durable and has “superior barrier qualities” which have “improved food safety, extended shelf life and reduced food waste significantly over recent decades.” This is particularly true of plastic packaging used for meat which is a “high-moisture, perishable product.” Concerns have been raised that the pressure to increase the recycled content in packaging to more than 30% could result in alternative materials being used that reduce food shelf life and consequently cause higher food wastage.

Although it is relatively easy to add recycled components to rigid plastics such as trays, it is more difficult to add it to flexibles and films. As a food contact material, packaging is highly regulated, and any new developments need approval – a process that takes time. However, with the introduction of the plastic tax looking likely in April 2022 and the health of our planet at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it is inevitable that we will see further developments in alternatives to single-use plastic.

Already we have seen a ban on single-use plastic stirrers and straws, and it is likely that plastic cutlery and plates will follow. With businesses pledging their commitment to making more sustainable choices, it seems there is much more to come in food packaging innovation.

Although the introduction of the plastic tax will affect the food industry, we are likely to see a much greater impact from the Extended Producer Responsibility modulated fees that will be introduced in 2023. With questions surrounding the abilities of the government-funded recycling infrastructure in the UK, this scheme would demand supplier and consumer support in managing and recycling packaging waste. Yet to be fully announced, this will undoubtedly see further changes across the food sector… allmanhall will continue to analyse, report and keep you updated.

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