In this very special series, we are sharing excerpts from Season 2 of the excellent Red to Green Podcast created by host and future food enthusiast Marina Schmidt. The show features in-depth conversations about the intersection of the food tech industry and sustainability. Season 2, titled ‘Plastic Alternatives’, is dedicated to the world of food packaging with a focus on exploring alternatives to fossil fuel plastics and solutions.
The below conversation is an excerpt from Red To Green Season 2, Episode 3: ‘Greenwashing – Lifecycle Assessments, BPA linings, & what Tetra Pak doesn’t want you to know’. In this episode, Marina Schmidt, founder of Red to Green Solutions talks to circularity advocate Paul Foulkes-Arellano, founder of the Sustainable Design Alliance and Circuthon® Consulting, advisor to Plastic Planet, with 30 years of experience in innovation consultancy and valued member of SourceGreenPackaging.com’s Ethics Committee.
Audio transcript by Descript, with edits by Anya Roschke.
Marina: Hello. And in this episode, you will find out how sustainable Tetra Paks, aluminum cans and glass jars are. How are corporations using hidden greenwashing tactics? And what does a circular economy look like in the packaging industry? You will hear. That and much more from our guests. Paul Foulkes-Arellano, the founder of the sustainable design Alliance based in London.
Paul focuses on sustainable innovation and I met him leading one of the sessions at an impact summit in Spain, a couple of years ago. He has 30 years of experience in innovation and strategic brand consultancy across the world. I had a lot of fun talking with him and I hope you will enjoy the interview as much as I did.
Let’s jump right in.
Marina: Paul, it’s awesome to talk to you. You’ve been a fantastic contribution to actually figure out our path within this season and this complex topic. And I super appreciate you, being there for recommendations and helping a bit to lift the greenwash fog within this topic.
Paul: Yeah, my pleasure. There is so much greenwash around. Often, it’s very hard to see anything in this world of plastic packaging.
Why is the issue of single-use plastics so pressing?
Marina: Maybe we can start out by thinking about plastic and foods specifically. Why is single-use plastic such a problem that we need to tackle?
“Single-use plastic is an issue in every country, it’s literally, solid fossil fuels being pumped into the environment and even when plastics are recycled, they remain solid fossil fuel, which will eventually go into the landfill.”Paul Foulkes-Arellano
Paul: Single-use plastic is problematic in so many ways that proponents of plastic even understand or are ignorant of because they’re based in often, G7 countries where there is recycling and where they have clean streets. Single-use plastic is an issue in every country, it’s literally, solid fossil fuels being pumped into the environment and even when plastics are recycled, they remain solid fossil fuel, which will eventually go into the landfill. Which somehow suggests that a landfill is a safe place for all of these toxic materials. It’s not. Those plastics there break down very slowly and they get into waterways. They get into the soils and we get this microplastic pollution, which has become very, kind of newsworthy in the past two or three years and that’s just in the Western world.
What is energetic recovery?
Marina: So you were talking about landfill and then the other option in Germany, we call it energetic recovery. So that’s the alternative and how would you evaluate this alternative in terms of pollution and actual efficiency?
“So when people say, “Oh yeah, but we can just burn it for energy.” They’re just perpetuating fossil fuels.”Paul Foulkes-Arellano
Paul: Yeah, I’ve questioned a lot of people, including experts in human health, on what happens when we burn fossil fuel plastics and if the filters are performing as they should, we should not be pumping lots of dangerous toxins into the air when we are turning plastic waste into energy.
However, all we are doing is literally taking fossil fuels and making energy from them. It’s no different in reality than burning gas or burning oil or burning coal. So when people say, “Oh yeah, but we can just burn it for energy.” They’re just perpetuating fossil fuels.
The relevance of life cycle assessments
Marina: Yeah. And that’s something. I’ve been stumbling across in so many interviews and so many documentaries, books, and it’s actually quite tricky to argue with it because a lot of people talk about life cycle assessment or life cycle analysis, and talk about plastics, actually having a lower carbon footprint because they may get recycled. Then if you spread out the carbon footprint among the different users and it’s supposedly lower, that’s the rationale that I’ve been seeing so far.
“And if you look again beyond Europe, if you look at places like Africa, where the Nile is absolutely full of plastic, where fish populations are affected by plastic and people are actually losing their livelihoods and their food because of plastic; that’s not built into an LCA. So an LCA is a very blunt metric.”Paul Foulkes-Arellano
Paul: Yeah. I mean, basically, the plastics industry decided many years ago to put all of their efforts into LCS or life cycle analysis, as you say, because plastics can be incredibly lightweight. Therein also lies its problem because actually, the LCAs assume that the plastic will be recycled when in fact it’s not.
And we know that plastic film, which is one of the biggest pollutants, is not recycled. There is a huge amount of work being done by the flexible plastics industry to create recycling, which has some kind of value or which is viable economically. But even the guy leading the project says there are enormous challenges.
And they’ve been working on this for many, many, many years, in fact, decades. So now, because legislation is arriving, people are trying to create this recycling. But when they do not, their LCAs say, “oh, plastic is the greenest material, because look at our LCAs.” They’re not taking into account the extermination of many species, they’re not taking into account pollution contamination.
And if you look again beyond Europe, if you look at places like Africa, where the Nile is absolutely full of plastic, where fish populations are affected by plastic and people are actually losing their livelihoods and their food because of plastic; that’s not built into an LCA. So an LCA is a very blunt metric.
It’s a piece of maths and quite frankly, I’ve seen LCAs for all kinds of material from the carton and paper industry, from the metals packaging industries, from the plastics and they all prove to be the best. But, in reality, plastics cannot currently be circular because they degrade, they lose volume and mass as they’re being mechanically recycled.
So they invent a new pledge, a new way of helping the LCA to fruition, which is chemical recycling but it’s not viable economically. And again, it’s been worked on for three decades and we don’t have the progress. So this LCA is a political lobbying technique, not something that I would regard as true science because, in reality, those LCAs pretend that the plastics are kept in the loop that they are recycled. Which clearly does not happen. The only country that claims it does that is Germany and that is mainly by burning things or shipping them abroad.
The export of waste and its impacts
Marina: Yeah and the shipping abroad thing is something that’s often overlooked. So there’s this whole thing about pushing the responsibility towards, for example, the Asian continent, right? Saying, well, they need to get their stuff together. Actually, Indonesia, for example, is getting all of the waste from America, from different developed countries.
They barely handle their own waste and now they get more waste from supposedly better-equipped countries, which should be able to handle their risks cycling. So who can blame them, right?
“And to be honest, recycling is not the answer anyway.”Paul Foulkes-Arellano
Paul: Absolutely. I mean, luckily in the UK we’ve been able to lobby our government and have the export of waste to Asia canceled. So we will no longer have direct export. However, what you discover when you talk to the environmental agency, is that British waste mafia, and that’s the only way to describe them, they are not official recyclers, they are waste mafia is that they will truck that material to other parts of Europe from which they will then ship that waste. And what we’ve seen by investigations actually carried out by experts in a waste shipment is that there’s a whole illegal network. Right now, UK waste is often trucked to Turkey. And once it’s in Turkey, you have no idea where it might go because they certainly are not handling it. They don’t have the facilities to deal with the huge amounts of plastic waste. So it’s going somewhere, and that somewhere could be anywhere in the world, quite frankly.
And to be honest, recycling is not the answer anyway. And the plastics industry, I mean, this is what’s coming out now. We’re seeing more and more whistle-blowing from people involved in these lobbying efforts.
‘Plastic Wars’ Documentary
Paul: So, PBS, the American documentary channel, had a great documentary early this year where the people who put together all of this recycling knew this was not viable. And they began by saying “we as a plastics industry, won’t pay for it, local government, and national government, and ultimately, therefore the consumer will pay for it. Therefore we keep our profit margins.” And they did that knowingly. And they’ve now admitted that on camera.
Marina: Interesting. Is that the Plastic Wars documentary or is that another one?
“And we can see the pollution being burnt in Asia. There it is with European brand names on the plastic being burned, illegally in Asia, on little piles and, and suffocating people.”Paul Foulkes-Arellano
Paul: Yeah. That one. Fortunately, we have Netflix, which tells us the truth or PBS, or BBC or Dodge Chavela. We have all these media sources who are going behind the scenes like sky news.
And we can see the pollution being burnt in Asia. There it is with European brand names on the plastic being burned, illegally in Asia, on little piles and, and suffocating people. So, that’s what happens very often. Plastic is not being burned in beautiful European waste facilities.
Marina: Yeah, it’s pretty much a system that’s set up to not be actually functional. So we’re spending all of that media attention, all of the bit of corporate money that is going into this but also state money to build up an interesting structure that even if it’s in the best state possible, it’s not actually sufficient to solve the problem in due time. Right?
What are consumers actually paying for?
“So we’re paying twice for that packaging as consumers we’re paying to buy it but also we’re paying for its disposal and often it’s not a very good disposal.”Paul Foulkes-Arellano
Paul: Yeah. And what you’ve just said. The plastics industry expects the state, ie. the consumer, not just to pay for the packaging, but also to pay for its disposal. So when we pay our council, some tax for services, that includes waste disposal. So we’re paying twice for that packaging as consumers we’re paying to buy it but also we’re paying for its disposal and often it’s not very good disposal because actually a local council filled with very well-meaning people will sell that waste to a processor. And the processor then we’ll sell that to a mafioso unwittingly. They don’t know, they don’t do an audit.
What we do know is that no one ever audits where this plastic ends up, we’ve actually asked people. How many times have you been to Asia? Never. So we ultimately are being duped by the industry and they pay nothing for it, which is why now, campaigners are asking for proper plastic taxes because that’s the only way to bring up the price of plastic, which is subsidized with trillions of dollars of fossil fuel subsidies, to a rate where we see the true cost of plastic and plastic pollution.
Are corporations developing adequate solutions?
“Now, what I find interesting about that is that they haven’t even touched home compostable or industrial compostable solutions. Like they don’t exist.”Marina Schmidt
Marina: I recently listened to a podcast episode by the bioplastics podcasts, featuring Dianna Breed, the global R, and D director of packaging and sustainability at Coca Cola so her way of describing why plastic is circular is the following: They designed the bottle with 30% bio-plastics, but it’s still 70% petroleum-based feedstock. They say, this is actually the better way of doing it in a circular manner, because if it’s biodegradable then you actually are losing the material, so you need to create the material from scratch if it biodegrades.
Now, what I find interesting about that is that they haven’t even touched home compostable or industrial compostable solutions. Like they don’t exist. Like it’s just the distinction between, ‘well, there’s this is recyclable and this is biodegradable. And biodegradable, it’s not circular.’ And that’s not the first time that I’ve seen the sort of line of argument. How would you respond to that?
How does food impact the ability to recycle?
“In a way, she’s absolutely right to say that compostables are not circular because, in fact, the whole point about circularity is keeping the resource in the loop.”Paul Foulkes-Arellano
Paul: I think it’s pretty interesting. Beverages and food are different because actually, beverage plastic it’s much easier to recycle. Because of the food contaminants, you get like mayo or all you’ll or any kind of greasy stuff on, on plastic, and it’s really hard to mechanically recycle. So beverage plastic is different and in a way she’s absolutely right to say that compostables are not circular because, in fact, the whole point about circularity is keeping the resource in the loop. But it’s very disingenuous to pretend that plastics are circular. They would only be circular if they were being refilled. So interestingly, when Coca Cola, took a partnership with Loop, which is a refillable system, the bottles they provide working alongside TerraCycle are made of glass; so if they truly believed that plastic was the most circular material, why then working with Loop, would they put a heavy glass bottle into the refill system? It just basically negates that whole argument. And in fact, I read a recent interview with someone else from sustainability, from Coca-Cola, Europe, boasting that they still have many, many millions of glass, refillable bottles, which are truly circular. I mean, they can go round. So why would they boast about that? If they thought plastic was a greener alternative, why would they prioritize it above glass?
Also, glass is inert. It’s not going to taint. It’s not going to shed microplastics. So there’s some very mixed messaging coming up because they know they’re in a very difficult situation. They’re getting literally attacked by every NGO in conservation, in plastic reduction. They’re being attacked by governments.
So they’re having to defend plastic, but why? Because the profit margins are greater on plastic. If you look at when Coca-Cola was mainly a refill company and look at their profit levels, they were lower than they are today. And ultimately all they’re doing is trying to create more profit, sustain those profits and retain the existing infrastructure that they’ve built.
Marina: Yeah. So to anybody listening, who has ever had an interest in compostable materials and alternatives to food, packaging, or plastic packaging, though, you get that there are so many types of packaging, right? This would probably be a good time to start a venture.
“There are bio solutions that can be seen as being somewhat circular, but ultimately there is a huge role for compostability.”Paul Foulkes-Arellano
Paul: Yes, absolutely. And what’s interesting is I think, we’ve talked about the rejection of compostable, in terms of circularity, but you can’t keep everything in the loop when it contains food because if you’re looking at food service if you’re looking at, out of home eating, it’s literally if you’re getting things covered in, mayo and all oil, ketchup, and salad dressing what are you going to do? So actually there is a massive role for compostability, for outdoor eating of food and take away food because actually you can capture that and you can through the composting process.
There are great new technologies creating bioenergy or for turning that into something that
In outdoor eating, we can’t take it off the table. So I think, if things are being sold in supermarkets, let’s try and use resources that can stay in the loop. But if we are literally unable to keep materials in the loop, don’t create pollution. Don’t pretend that somehow this lightweight, fossil fuel plastic is going to be kept in the loop in outdoor environments. It just isn’t, this is pure speculation and pure myth. So we need to have compostables as part of the food packaging mix.
How impactful are corporate pledges actually?
Marina: And this whole trend of corporations going into a big change program, sustainability programs like Nestle committing to a hundred percent recyclable plastics, and so on. How do you evaluate that? How much of this is actually true change and how much is BS and at the same time, one also has to say, well, it’s a step maybe in the right direction. But it’s actually still not to a degree actually sustainable.
Paul: Yeah. You had a really good point because if you don’t hit your target if you don’t achieve the pledge that you make, there is no action from the government. There is no action from consumers or industry, so you can make all these pledges and then fail them if you analyze the pledges, the pats, the alliances to end plastic waste the targets.
If they don’t hit them, there is no consequence. Therefore, it’s incredibly easy to make these sweeping statements
Marina: Yeah. A big, big, big difference. Is it theoretically recyclable or is it actually being recycled?
“We now have to start differentiating between recyclable and collected and recycled because actually, lots of things are recyclable at a cost, but there’s not even a collection methodology.”Paul Foulkes-Arellano
Paul: I saw a great comment today by someone who’s a real authority saying, We now have to start differentiating between recyclable and collected and recycled because actually, lots of things are recyclable at a cost, but there’s not even a collection methodology.
Marina: How would you evaluate brands that boast about their products being a hundred percent from recyclable plastic? Like there is this plastic bank, for example, they describe their plastic as social plastic.
Paul: They are basically putting a beautiful gloss on the fossil fuel industry. And what is plastic? It’s just, you know, it’s a fossil fuel. Therefore, all of this is just ridiculous because even if the plastic is a hundred percent recycled, it’s still a hundred percent fossil fuel.
It’s the thing we’re trying to get rid of from all of our other sectors.
Daily confrontations as to what is more sustainable
Marina: When I go to the supermarket, I’ve been doing a 30 day, less plastic challenge. And actually, it really made me question: well, if I have coconut milk, in a tin can or in a Tetra pack, which one should I buy? Daily confrontations with what is actually more sustainable become very apparent.
So on a personal note, if I would be evaluating between that tin can of coconut milk and a Tetra pack, I think in terms of health, a Tetra Pak may be better. And in terms of sustainability, tin cans may be better.
Paul: Yeah, the inner lining of both, the thing touching the product, is fossil fuel in both cases. So basically you have a choice of either a fossil fuel lining or a fossil fuel line. If you had it in glass, it would be because the glass itself doesn’t need any further lining. So this is, this is the sort of conundrums of consumers.
What would be great would be a carton, without a lining. A carton with some kind of bio lacquer, made of some kind of tree resin or fruit peel kind of lacquer that kept the product fresh. That stops you from having to have products interacting with fossil fuels and I think this will come.
I think you will notice that the carton companies, Tetra Pak, SIG Combibloc, are all working on a full bio carton that will be fully recyclable and they’re getting closer and closer.
Are Tetra Paks actually as recyclable as they seem?
Marina: Hmm, because the Tetra Pak, or the let’s say let’s talk about general carton companies, it’s not as recyclable as many people think. Right?
“Globally, only 20% of cartons are recycled.”Paul Foulkes-Arellano
Paul: Yeah. I mean, Tetra Pak is running efforts currently in the UK. Talking about their sustainable credentials because they know they’re under attack. The people who are lobbying for plastic reduction are not fans of Tetra Pak because they know that globally, only 20% of cartons are recycled.
Paul: Yeah, so 80% of cartons may hate people to know this vigor. They absolutely hate people, even within the UK, which is a big recycling nation. You’re looking at less than 60%, probably, of cartons being recycled. And when we say recycled, we mean the pulp from the cart and being separated, the aluminum is recycled, and the plastic component being burned.
So that plastic layer within Tetra Pak is being burned. It’s not being turned into some beautiful new plastic bottle or film, not as far as I’m aware unless they’ve managed to change things in the last six months? All these packaging companies are playing a kind of lobbying battle. But, people are aware. People are able to find information on social media and make their own choices. And it drives people to sort of say, but I don’t have a choice cause my supermarket doesn’t give it to me, you know, if you want to be truly plastic-free, you cannot use supermarkets. You have to choose a much, much different route.
The abundance of plastic in everyday items
Marina: Hmm. Yeah. And for the month that I’ve been reducing plastic, including still now I actually stopped eating any plant-based alternatives because well, all of the ones that we have here that I’ve seen, are packaged in some way in plastic. Well, I was so disappointed. I bought this one, which was packaged and carton just to open it. And then it was packaged in plastic.
Paul: Yeah. I mean, we’ve been having this debate about Oak milk, and in fact, the plastic-free way of making oat milk. If you liquidize the oats in water and then strain it, you can make your own oat milk at around 10% of the cost of a carton of oat milk. So you’re saving a fortune. But, plastic-free, often involves a little bit more effort.
Honestly, I don’t really have the time for that little bit of extra effort. What I need are the brands to give me what I need, plastic-free. So come on brands. Get, get moving.
Marina: Yeah, because I think exactly the audience that buys these plant-based products is also open to paying a bit more, to have more sustainable packaging.
Paul: Correct. I’ve always said, if you are a vegan brand or a plant-based brand, you should be first in line to be using fossil-free packaging. You should be pioneering. You shouldn’t be: “Oh yeah. It’s really hard. I’m a small brand. Let me go plastic. It’s not fair.” It’s just not fair on your consumer. You’re being ultimately two-faced and hypocritical because you’re giving them the reduced carbon footprint of plant-based, but then throwing fossil fuels at them, which ultimately will harm other wildlife.
“We always need to push back the transfer of responsibility to the consumers, this spiel of the plastics industry and come back to the responsibility of the companies to provide their products in a way that by default is good.”Marina Schmidt
Marina: Yeah, definitely. We always need to push back the transfer of responsibility to the consumers, this spiel of the plastics industry, and come back to the responsibility of the companies to provide their products in a way that by default is good. So if you don’t have sustainable packaging, then you are actively pushing that out into the world and you can’t blame the consumers for buying your products, which are unsustainable because you’re marketing it to them. You want them to buy it.
Paul: Yeah, no, it’s really duplicitous two-faced behavior. It’s often impossible for the brand manager to do the right thing because they’re in such a large organization and they cannot move. They’re trapped into a structure.
What are other factors to look at when evaluating the sustainability of packaging?
Marina: Yeah. So if we look at yeah. Other impacts, what are the criteria that we need to consider when we’re assessing the sustainability of packaging? Let’s look at it from the position of a decision-maker and a company that needs to think about what other material, what other types of packaging are we going to switch to?
Paul: I think there are really two criteria. I do think we need to look at carbon footprint. So we do need to look at things until we move to fully electric. Right now we are not in a fully electric vehicle world. We’re burning fossil fuels to transport food and drinks. So we do need to think about the weight. We need lightweight materials. We’ve got options, we’ve got more and more paper solutions, which are very lightweight. We have slim aluminum cans for beverages, which are very lightweight, more lightweight than a plastic bottle. I mean, this is one of the things that are laughable.
You know, an aluminum can, can weigh less than a bottle because the cap of the bottle is so heavy as well. It’s crazy. so that’s one thing, but then we need to add to that. Does this pollute the environment? Is this going to kill wildlife? Is this going to damage human health? So I think those are the two criteria you need to balance together.
“So, when looking at sustainability, you can’t just compare one thing with another, you have to look at the whole system.”Paul Foulkes-Arellano
Paul: And often you don’t have the right solution technically, because you’re looking in the wrong place. And I think all of my work is helping brands move to more sustainable solutions. When you begin work, what they’re looking at is often a better material from the same class. So they’re looking often, if they’re plastics, they’re thinking, “Ooh, let me go for a bioplastic that’s compostable.” That’s the easiest jump because they’re thinking, I understand that and I understand this, but that can often be the very wrong place to look. You do need to make a kind of mental leap into a world, which is without fossil fuels. What would you do? And it is actually often bringing packaging suppliers together to create a sustainable solution, not just, one supplier or one source, so that measurement can only be done.
When you have the new solution, you can’t take something off the shelf or straight from a sample and go, “oh, that fails because that’s not how you do packaging innovation.” All of the people I’ve worked with during my sort of 30-year career in packaging, innovation will spend, all these brilliant industrial designers will spend one, two, three years creating a solution and working with a variety of manufacturers and material suppliers to come up with the right sustainable solution.
It’s not an overnight switch and often big brands go to their procurement teams and I’ve heard it from the procurement people. “We’ve been asked to find an alternative.” It’s not a procurement decision. You can’t just go and buy the right solution. It’s like “find me a Tetra pack that doesn’t have plastic and aluminum in it.”
It’s like, “well, we can’t find one. Oh, we give up.” Then we just carry on using the Tetra Pak. This is the problem. It’s quite a systemic issue. So, when looking at sustainability, you can’t just compare one thing with another, you have to look at the whole system.
Finding the solution
Marina: If I understood you, right, it’s sometimes the fusion of two different materials or two different possible solutions?
Marina: One of the plant-based meats that actually is the best one in terms of packaging has outer paper packaging. So at the bottom, and then the actual meat is lined in plastic, but a rather thin lining.
It’s very easy to take off. So separates very cleanly and it describes on the carton. put the plastic into the yellow bin and put the paper into the blue bin and so on. So that’s an example where there’s still some plastic, but at least they have reduced it, by removing the thicker part of the plastic.
“We want things to be frozen because the food waste is less with frozen because anything fresh can go off quite easily and the packaging with frozen is plastic-free.”Paul Foulkes-Arellano
Paul: Yeah. The interesting thing when looking at plant-based meats is there is a plastic-free solution to sell the product frozen rather than fresh because any fresh product needs protection. But the process of freezing something is the protection it needs. So you can put a frozen burger, a plant-based burger straight into a carton, which is recyclable.
It will have a protective lining material that can be used again. There are lots of new ones coming out. A lot of these plant-based substitutes want to sell fresh because they’re appealing to be like, they’re trying to be fresh meat and appealing to this kind of ethical consumer who wants, who sees fresh as being the best.
From a sustainability point of view, frozen is the best we should be buying. Particularly when we get renewable energy and we can run our fridges as much as we want because we’re using wind power or solar. We want things to be frozen because the food waste is less with frozen because anything fresh can go off quite easily and the packaging with frozen is plastic-free. And you can even put in like a sachet of little, serving of sauce, and that can be frozen inside the packet as a little frozen cube, which doesn’t need any extra plastic.
Paul: So yeah, I mean, this is, again, these are almost like these mental leaps that you have to make.
So I’ve got a former client who was working in the frozen meat business. She now has a frozen plant-based product, one of the supermarkets is demanding plastic-free packaging for her to sell. And this is where the push is coming. So it’s very interesting to see the supermarkets, jockeying for positions to see who will be the most sustainable.
And they are driving this innovation. And literally, they are saying, if you don’t come plastic-free, we don’t want your product.
Paul: This is great.
Want more? Check out the whole Red To Green Talks series here.
Lead image courtesy of Nareeta Martin (Unsplash).