The UK supermarket will now simply let consumers pick up individual cans or bottles at the same price per unit as part of a multi-buy promotion. It reckons it can save some 45 million pieces of plastic across the country as this rolls out across own-brand canned fizzy drinks, kids’ lunchbox drinks, energy drinks, water and juices.
But how will this move play out in a market that has, for years, valued convenience above pretty much everything else?
Tesco offers 'more choice, same value, less plastic'
Beverage multipacks have been around for decades but the swathes of plastic shrink wrap used to bundle drinks together have long been problematic – which such waste gaining more and more recognition as consumers become more concerned about plastics, waste and the environment.
So saving plastic is the driving force for Tesco’s decision, as the supermarket steps up its campaign against unnecessary plastic.
But it also champions the increased flexibility its new multi-buy arrangement gives consumers: instead of having to buy multiples of the same product as dictated by a multi-pack, shoppers will now be able to mix and match purchases including lemonade, cola, ginger beer, soda and tonic water.
And in a cost of living crisis, Tesco has been clear to point out the price-savings of a multi-pack will be maintained: the price of a multipack of 4 used to be £1, now the deal is 4 for £1.
For Tesco head of packaging development, Johnny Neville, the move ticks all the right boxes.
“Customers are focused on getting great value right now, but they still want to use less plastic," he said. “Not only is this move great news for the environment but it will also offer customers more choice and flexibility when it comes to fizzy drinks – at no extra cost. It could even work out much cheaper for customers who want a variety of drinks.
“Basically it’s more choice, same value but less plastic!”
While for Tesco this might seem to be a win-win-win situation, the question is whether time-strapped consumers will miss the convenience of grabbing four drinks bundled together without any further though (we reached out to the supermarket to ask how the convenience factor had been balanced up in their decision but did not receive a reply).
But Mike Hughes, head analyst at FMCG Gurus, points out that – as with every shopping decision – consumers will weigh up many factors and the advantages of the multi-buy over multi-pack could come out on top.
"This is a clever move by Tesco, enabling them to significantly reduce plastic consumption in a way that is relatively hassle-free and offers benefits for consumers beyond acting in an altruistic method," he said.
"Indeed, consumers are concerned about the environment, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will purchase a product because it is more sustainable, especially if it is associated with compromise (in this instance, the reduction of packaging impacts convenience) or a higher price.
“The first positive is that the price per unit of drinks is not rising, which is important at a time when consumers are facing a cost-of-living crisis. Secondly, enabling consumers to mix-and-match beverages is something that offers more variety and as such, will appeal to people from a sensory perspective – meaning the strategy will be deemed a win-win for the planet and the individual, with the benefit of greater flavor variety at no extra cost helping offset any potential concerns about reduced convenience."
Looking beyond the consumer experience, however, there’s another factor in play. The UK introduced a plastic packaging tax in April: hoping to push companies into rethinking their approach to plastic packaging in the same way the UK sugar tax is credited with pushing manufacturers towards reformulation.
The tax covers the supply chain through to the manufacturer to consumer, and applies to plastic used for the protection, handling, delivery or presentation of goods.
It covers shrink wrap, alongside a wide-range of packaging items including plastic bottles, caps, plastic film around boxes, tamper proof seals, film wrap for raw meat and biscuit wrappers.
The tax, at £200 ($243) per ton, applies to manufactured or imported plastic packaging components which contain less than 30% recycled plastic.
Multi-packs don't have to use plastic
Over the last few years, innovation has been building in finding alternatives to plastic shrink wrap and plastic rings: keeping the convenience of multi-packs but without the plastic waste.
In 2019, Atlanta-headquartered Graphic Packaging International launched its KeelClip secondary packaging: a fiber-based paperboard multi-pack solution for cans.
Since then, the technology has been picked up by AB InBev in the UK, Canada, and Brazil; Spendrups in Sweden; Coca-Cola HBC and Coca-Cola CCEP in Europe and beyond; and most recently by Liberty Coca-Cola in the US.
With over 550,000 packs sold already, the company’s 2022 projections are ‘very strong’.
It estimates that the recyclable, paper-based clip made from renewable plant-based fiber from sustainable sources has saved 1,500 tons of plastic in the last year alone. An integrated machinery solution, the KeelClip 1600, can apply packs at high speeds; and cans can be precisely orientated for optimal shelf appeal (a center keel in the packaging secures them in place to ensure they do not rotate during delivery).
It believes that convenience still is important to consumers; but furthermore champions an added benefit of its format that become evident during the pandemic – the paperboard covers can tops and thus delivers enhanced hygiene.
“Paper-based multipack packaging enables shrink wrap and plastic rings to be eliminated, whilst still protecting the product through the supply chain, reducing the potential for damage and waste. It also provides a convenient solution for consumers, making multiple purchases easier and safer to handle," explained Steve Gould, Global New Business Development Director - Beverage and Multipack Systems at Graphic Packaging International.
With both industry and consumer trends pointing in the same direction, he believes the days of the plastic shrink wrap multi-pack are coming to an end – but is ready to offer an alternative.
“With increasing legislation and taxes around single use plastic, consumer rejection of brands that still use unnecessary plastic in their packaging, together with brands’ own sustainability commitments to remove plastic from their packaging, the question for many producers is when, not if, they will make the switch.”
Graphic Packaging is not alone in seeing a market for paperboard to replace plastic.
Packaging and paper company Mondi launched Hug&Hold at drinktec this month: another paperboard innovation to provide secure and safe transportation as well as stacking for bottled drinks. Furthermore, it has worked with Krones to ensure that the bottles can be used in a fully automated process with the latest Krones machines.
Hug&Hold comprises two elements: The first is a patent-pending sleeve made of 100% kraft paper that wraps around the bottles to hold them securely. Made from Advantage SpringPack Plus, it offers high tensile strength and can withstand enough weight to strap and stabilise the bottles during transportation.
The second element is a corrugated clip which holds the bottles around the neck. An optional integrated handle means a bundle of bottles can be carried and transported easily. Simple separation of single bottles from the pack by the consumer or retail staff adds to the convenience of the design.
Hug&Hold is made from renewable and fully recyclable materials, suitable for existing paper waste streams throughout Europe.