Question marks as Sainsbury’s vacuum packs beef to save plastic

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image source: Sainsbury's
Image source: Sainsbury's

Related tags Sainsbury's Plastic Recycling Packaging Packaging and labeling

An anti-plastic campaign group has questioned the effectiveness of Sainsbury’s announcement that it is swapping traditional, plastic tray packaging for a new vacuum-packed alternative across its beef mince range, saving 450 tonnes of plastic annually.

The UK supermarket revealed it is removing traditional plastic tray packaging across its entire beef mince range and replacing it with a vacuum-packed alternative

The packaging format, which uses a minimum of 55% less plastic, is the latest move in a series of initiatives from the retailer as it works towards its goal of halving its use of plastic packaging in Own Brand products by 2025.

The beef mince products will be vacuum-packed for freshness by removing all oxygen which typically causes a product to eventually spoil. The new packaging will contain the same amount of beef mince, but is smaller in size, helping customers to use their freezer and fridge space more efficiently.

The move is the latest in a string of changes made by the retailer in a bid to halve its use of own-brand plastic packaging by 2025. Sainsbury’s was the first UK supermarket to remove plastic bags for loose fruit, vegetables and bakery items from all stores, as well as the first to remove all black plastic from chilled ready meals in 2019.

More recently, Sainsbury’s announced the removal of single-use plastic lids across its own-brand yoghurt, crème fraiche, sour cream, cream, cottage cheese, custard and dip pots, saving 71 million pieces of plastic per year. Whilst back in September, Sainsbury’s also made its own-brand coffee pod range fully recyclable.

Claire Hughes, Director of Product and Innovation at Sainsbury’s, says: “We know our customers expect us to be reducing the use of plastic across our products are and we're constantly looking for new ways to innovate to meet our Plan for Better plastic reduction targets. We strive to be bold in the changes we are making, which is why we’re pleased to be the first UK retailer to vacuum pack all our beef mince range without impacting the quantity or great quality of product that our customers expect. 

"This is the latest in a long line of changes we have pioneered in the space working collaboratively with our suppliers, and customers can expect much more to come from Sainsbury’s.” 

But there’s more to this announcement on mince than meets the eye, claimed Sian Sutherland, Co-Founder of campaigner A Plastic Planet.

“While there will be a saving in the weight of plastic used, switching to flexible plastics over rigid ones is no more ‘green’ than changing from a petrol to a diesel vehicle,” Sutherland claimed. “Flexible plastics are almost impossible to recycle, especially where they are food contaminated.  The old, rigid plastic packaging would at least have gone into recycling, however limited the UK’s systems are.  The new vacuum packs will instead be thrown into general waste and end up incineration.”

“The big brands really need to wean themselves off single-use materials altogether, offering produce in reusable packaging instead.  Human beings have been eating mince much longer than they have relied on single-use plastic to package it.”

‘Huge opportunity’ for food industry to reduce emissions

It comes as a new report shows that 58% of Europeans consider the climate impact important when buying food and beverages.

A survey commissioned by Yara International and conducted by IPSOS polled 12,000 consumer respondents in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

It found 51% of Europeans are willing to pay more for fossil free food items, meaning food produced without fossil sources. However, most people feel that it is not easy to know which food is climate friendly, as 76% of Europeans would like the carbon footprint to be visible on the food label. 

Key findings in the survey included: 69% of Europeans would choose a climate friendlier food item versus a cheaper option. (26% would choose a fossil free food item, 43% would choose a low-carbon item); 31% of Europeans already make sustainable choices when it comes to their buying habits; more than three out of four (76%) Europeans want to see the carbon footprint of food items on the label; nearly three out of four Europeans (74%) believe food companies should work to reduce emissions in their food production.

“The report shows that Europeans are highly motivated to buy sustainable food to reduce their climate impact. This should be a wake-up call to the entire food industry,” said Birgitte Holter, VP of Green Fertilizers at Yara. “While three out of five Europeans find the climate impact important when buying food, a majority feel it is not easy enough to understand available information about the climate emission to be able to make sustainable choices. More than three out of four consumers would prefer to be able to read the carbon footprint on the food item.”

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