While retailers and restaurant chains are falling over themselves to out-do their rivals in committing to major reductions in plastic use, there is not a lot of coverage about how the right kind of plastic products, used in the right way, can contribute to solving the problem – and help companies to boost profits.
Plastic is not actually the villain it is made out to be. The real issue is how we use it and what happens to it when we’ve finished with it. Yes, we should certainly be reducing the amount of disposable plastic packaging that surrounds the stuff we buy every day. But there is another strategy which we should be exploring further in the food and drinks industry: reuse.
I am talking about reusable products becoming much more widely accepted as part of the logistics chain, in the form of heavy-duty, long-lasting reusable crates, pallets and baskets – known in the industry as reusable transit packaging (RTP).
WRAP champions steps to reduce waste and use resources more efficiently. It is supporting a number of schemes looking at the potential benefits of introducing RTP into business sectors which currently do not use it.
According to WRAP: “Thousands of tonnes of transit packaging are disposed of every year in the UK, so reusable systems offer significant business and environmental benefits compared with single-trip packaging. The success of such systems depends not only on fit-for-purpose packaging but also on effective control and management of the closed loop system.”
In Bakers Basco’s corner of the food industry – bread and other baked goods – most of the UK’s biggest bread producers are working with us, alongside the country’s supermarkets and high street shops, to drive the uptake of sturdy, long-lasting reusable plastic bread baskets rather than using non-reusable packaging such as cardboard.
We have an equipment pool of four million bread baskets, along with 500,000 wheeled dollies to stack and move them with. The baskets we use last, on average, for eight years. They go out to the shops, they come back to us, they get cleaned and repaired and sent back out, over and over again.
“The success of such systems depends on fit-for-purpose packaging and effective control and management of the closed loop.”
They have been designed in consultation with bakers, retailers, equipment manufacturers and logistics experts to optimise the use of space in depots, stores and vans, saving storage costs, transport costs, fuel and pollution. At the end of their useful life, they get recycled and made into new baskets or other products.
Our baskets can also be used in-store to display loaves of bread for shoppers to select. Check the bread aisle in your supermarket: if the loaves are displayed from bread baskets rather than being put on shelf, then the chances are they are Bakers Basco baskets, which are the same ones that they were delivered to the stockroom in. That can save shop staff time and maximises the use of the space available.
We are not the only supplier of RTP to the food and drinks industry. There are probably tens of millions of baskets, crates and pallets made out of heavy-duty plastic, designed to last for years, shuttling backwards and forwards from manufacturer to depot to retailer, saving a fortune in disposable packaging and never going into landfill.
Plastic RTP can offer significant advantages over the alternative of cardboard boxes and trays. Cardboard is, of course, recyclable but it’s not reusable. And we would argue that it is better to reuse for many years and then recycle rather than use something once and recycle it.
This is plastic as a solution. The products are sturdy, designed for a specific purpose and they work within a very carefully designed and managed closed-loop system.
There is a lot of talk about how reducing plastic waste in consumer products will require major behaviour change on the part of consumers, supported by retailers and food manufacturers. But introducing a circular economy RTP system requires just as much behaviour change – the only real difference is that we do not really have to worry about the consumer element of the equation.
Arguably, the closed-loop system is the most important element of any RTP scheme. There must be processes in place for the packaging equipment to be:
- Designed to deliver optimum functionality for the purpose
- Delivered to clients at the right time and in the right quantity, and collected when necessary
- Cleaned regularly
- Repaired when needed
- Checked for wear and tear, and assessed for life-span remaining
- Collected when they have reached the end of their useful lives and sent for recycling.
That means that everyone involved – bakers, distributors and retailers – must buy into the principles of the scheme and accept that they have a part to play in ensuring everything runs smoothly.
Our company is also looking at integrating 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.
Keeping on top of where our 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 others’ property without permission are also the kind of people who will 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 communications, there are obvious potential benefits to the food and drinks industry from using trackers in RTP, beyond simply reducing theft.
If logistics managers can see where their pallets, baskets and crates are at all times, they can improve traffic flow and 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.
RTP may not be sexy, but it works. It saves time, transport costs, money – and it could help us to save the planet too.
Steve Millward is general manager at bakery equipment company Bakers Basco