Reflecting the current concerns about the impact of packaging on the environment, the Big Plastics Debate attracted the biggest crowd at the NEC in Birmingham this week.

Despite adverse weather conditions, the packaging community came to the Packaging Innovations show to hear why Iceland Foods is ‘too cool for plastic’ and witness a panel of experts debate this hot topic.

It was standing room only half an hour before easyFairs’ business development director for packaging Josh Brooks opened the seminar that saw Ian Schofield, own label and packaging manager at Iceland, Kevin Vyse, senior packaging technologist and circular economy lead at M&S, Nick Brown, head of sustainability for Coca-Cola European Partners and the Co-op’s environment manager Iain Ferguson share their views. This was preluded by Martin Kersh, executive director of the Foodservice Packaging Association, who talked in some detail about the government’s 25-year plan for the environment, which he said had been ‘rushed in ahead of time’ in response to the public outcry following the Blue Planet revelations about the state of our oceans. 

To accommodate the unprecedented audience numbers, the organisers quickly arranged for the two-hour seminar to be beamed to three other large screens around the show.

‘I’m just doing my bit; everyone else has to do theirs,’ stated Ian Schofield in his presentation, where he talked about Iceland’s much publicised pledge to remove plastic packaging from its own label products by 2023. He said there is a great need to coordinate tests on substrates and set up standards as he is currently not convinced that bio-based substrates break down to nothing. ‘But we’ve got to turn down the tap,’ he said, also stating that the solutions have to be cost neutral because consumers may want less plastic but are unwilling to pay for it.

Iain Ferguson referred to aim of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (which together with The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit has set up New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize) to help ‘keep plastics as valuable materials in the economy, and out of the ocean,’ but he said, ‘The problem is that the public is confused about labelling [recycling advice] and because they can’t recycle on-the-go.’

‘We need to use the power of the brands to get the message across about recycling and littering,’ said Nick Brown. He advocated more bins and improved collection systems as part of the solution, as well as deposit-returns schemes where the consumer pays a small deposit which is refunded when the empty bottle is returned for recycling. 

Kevin Vyse spoke about the intention of M&S to reduce the current reliance upon three different polymers down to just the one by 2025.

While the show may have seen a fall in visitor numbers (no official numbers have yet been released), it is clear that the valuable and highly topical content of the seminars appealed to those that did brave the elements, and may indeed have come specifically to hear a more nuanced view on plastics in packaging.


Read more about alternatives to plastic substrates in Des King’s article ‘Green planet’ here.