Innovate Blog
The Material Responsible Economy

Tuesday July 24, 2018

Ask the Expert: Jo Gilroy (Head of Sustainability).

We asked our Sustainability expert ‘What is material responsibility – and how can it help foodservice operators switch their packaging products to a more sustainable option?’

And here’s what she told us…

Sustainability Expert – Jo Gilroy Twitter – @JoannaGilroy

The supply chain for foodservice packaging, and any other business that uses disposable packaging to transport, protect, market or serve their products, has certainly had a monumental shake-up over the last few months.  The threat of government action, both in the UK and EU, to address the environmental impact of our throwaway society, has become tangible.  Together with intense media interest and some hard-hitting broadcasting, the result has been the vociferous beginnings of a strong plastic free movement.  And, unlike climate change, there are no ocean plastic deniers.  The problem is accepted as real, as global and as immediate.

Recently we’ve heard that recognisable household names, like Iceland, SKY and Unilever, are pledging to eradicate single-use plastics from their businesses.  But is this the best long-term responsible solution for an issue, that by its scale alone, is such a complicated one?

Can the issue of plastic waste be solved by simply switching one material for another?  It would be a terrible shame if the mistakes of the past were to be repeated by designing solutions which focus on just one environmental element and exclude others of equal importance.  In order to be successful and long lasting, our solutions must be designed using a holistic view.  The time has come for the us to look at what makes a Material Responsible Economy.

In a Material Responsible Economy, buying decisions are influenced by the full life cycle of the material a product is made from, rather than a single factor.  The Material Responsible Economy is one where the whole supply chain is concerned with product stewardship, balancing the social, environmental, economic and material considerations of all products and packaging.

A common example of where material responsibility has not been taken, is the replacement of plastic bottles with glass bottles.  This short-term solution is based on the sole principle that glass is a more environmentally friendly material because it is not plastic.

If we were to apply a material responsible mind-set to switching plastic to glass, we’d need to consider the manufacturing, transportation and end of life stages for both materials.  Glass is produced from a renewable resource but is one of the most energy intensive materials to manufacture.  Plastic is less energy intensive and can be produced from renewable plant-based sources.  Coca Cola’s widely recyclable plant bottle is a good example of this.  Glass is a significantly heavier material than plastic, meaning that more fuel is required to transport fewer glass bottles than the plastic equivalent.  All these factors give glass a higher carbon footprint than plastic, in some cases more than 8 times greater.

When it comes to disposable foodservice products, certain plastic types are widely recyclable.  Plastic bottles are made from PET, the only plastic type which can be recycled back into food grade products.  Consequently 74 per cent of plastic bottles are recycled in the UK.  Glass is also a recyclable material but inconsistently.  Whether or not glass is recycled depends on the recycling capabilities of the local authorities.  Finally, if irresponsibly littered, glass is not an inert material and will cause environmental damage, just like plastic.

So, what we can see from this example, is that before we jump on an anti-plastic bandwagon and swap all our plastic material for something different (if that were possible), we must consider the full product material picture.

Using a material responsible economy framework to assess the environmental merit of alternative materials calls into question the perceptions around what makes a material more, or less, environmentally friendly.  Plastic-free does not always mean environmentally better.  To truly address the damage caused to our blue planet we must enable the rise of the Material Responsible Economy, one where materials are assessed against a life cycle perspective, taking into consideration:

  • Where the raw material comes from
  • How the material is manufactured
  • What chemicals are used to produce or manufacture the material
  • How the material transported and the environmental impact of its transportation
  • Disposal options for the material, if it can be reused and/or recycled.

At Bunzl Catering Supplies, as part of our commitment to Goal 14 of the United Nation’s Sustainability Development Goals framework, Life Below Water, we are actively helping our customers understand the importance of adopting a material responsible mind set.  We host quarterly Sustainable Future customer forums covering this very topic.

We’ve also presented our customers with a series of product factsheets that give fully-considered options for switching to alternative material type in specific product categories. Please view our Sustainable Future product factsheets online:  straws, sandwich packaging and cups.

For more information about the Material Responsible Economy or our Sustainable Future programme – please feel free to contact us.

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