Time is running out as chip makers embrace plastic-free packaging

Del Currie

Del Currie started his potato chip company after being challenged by his daughter

When Del Currie decided to ditch single-use plastic, he had a “naughty secret”: he couldn’t give up his love of crisps.

He says his environmentally conscious daughter wasn’t happy when she found out he was cheating.

She suggested that if he really wanted to make a difference, he should start his own crisps business, one that wouldn’t sell them in plastic wrappers.

“So I said, ‘Okay, I will,'” says Currie, who previously worked in app development. “It wasn’t so much a choice to create crisps without a package, there was just no one doing anything right, so I decided to go for it.”

True to his word, in March this year he launched Spudos, which now supplies crisps to over 65 ‘zero waste stores’ across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. These are stores that aim to eliminate packaging and encourage customers to show up with their own containers, which they fill from dispensers.

Spudos shoppers then flavor and season the chips in the store, with one of the company’s “Spud Dust” shakers. These cylinder-shaped shakers are made of plastic, but are designed to be sent back to the company’s base in East London to be filled.

For internet orders from customers in the UK and overseas, Spudos packs its crisps and flavors in packets made from a natural material called cellulose, which is derived from wood pulp. These break down in about 45 days.

Spudos chips in one of the company's biodegradable bags

Spudos mail order crisps come in biodegradable, plastic-free packets

Additionally, people can order a refillable tub which, although plastic, is designed to be used again and again.

While most of us don’t give chips, or as we say in North America, potato chips, thoughtful as we bite into them, making and selling them is a huge industry.

Global sales in 2021 totaled $32.2bn (£26.6bn), research has found, and in the UK alone it is widely reported that six billion packets of crisps are consumed each year. Meanwhile, data for the United States indicates that Americans typically eat 1.85 billion pounds (839 million kg) of potato chips per year.

One problem with this consumption is packaging – most crisps continue to be sold in single-use, non-recyclable plastic bags. These can take decades to break down.

The biggest names in the crisps industry say they will need more time to switch to more environmentally friendly packaging.

In the UK, the biggest-selling brand is by far Walkers, which makes 14 million packets of crisps a day. In 2018, the fact that its packages were not recyclable made headlines when environmental activists began returning the packages to the company.

Walker Chips

Walkers makes 14 million packets of crisps every day

Walkers owner, US giant PepsiCo, said it would switch to using recycled or renewable plastics by 2030.

Meanwhile, it’s smaller chip companies that are leading the way in terms of more environmentally friendly packaging, like Canada’s Humble Potato Chips. It was launched earlier this year by Alicia Lahey and her husband Jeff.

Their compostable chip packs are also made primarily from cellulose and are certified plastic-free. They are said to have a shelf life comparable to plastic bags and are now on sale in Canada and the United States.

“We started Humble Potato Chips for our son Wilder,” says Ms. Lahey. “When he was born, we began to hope for a future that would not be just ours.

Alicia and Jeff Lahey

The Laheys are already exporting to the United States, although they only started their business earlier this year

“Our goal is to inform people that we shouldn’t rely solely on plastic for food packaging, and we can all help eliminate microplastics from our food system, human body, oceans and soil.”

Back in the UK, Herefordshire farmers Sean Mason and Mark Green launched sustainable crisps brand Two Farmers in 2018. They were inspired to search for biodegradable packaging after they grew tired of finding packets of crisps empty plastic boxes on their farms.

The duo ultimately spent four years trying to find suitable packages that would allow them to market the crisps. “Eventually, we visited a packaging trade show and came across a sustainable cellulose film, and combined it with plant-based, biodegradable ink and glue,” says Mason.

“They [the packaging firm in question] had never made crispy packets of it before, and it took two and a half years to develop.”

In the end, the cost of the finished package had quadrupled in expected price. “[But] we’re trying to give people the option to spend a little more for something more eco-friendly. As we grow, the costs will come down. »

Two Farmers crisps are now being sold on Eurostar trains between London and Paris and Brussels, and Mr Mason says they are ‘in talks to launch in several European countries in early 2023’.

Mark Green, left, and Sean Mason

It was four years before Sean Mason, right, and Mark Green could bring their crisps to market

But why aren’t plastic crisp packets usually recyclable? Shelie Miller, professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan, explains that this is because “most are not made of just plastic, but thin layers of metal and plastic.”

“The mix of metal and plastic poses a real challenge to recycling systems, which must separate individual materials for recycling. Not only are packaging a mixture of materials, but the separation of two different materials on such a thin package is incredibly difficult from a technical point of view, and unfeasible economically.”

But Professor Miller also warns that there are some problems with biodegradable packaging, such as people mistakenly putting it in with their recycling, where it could act as a contaminant. This could mean that the affected items can no longer be recycled.

International trade

More from the BBC series taking an international perspective on trade.

Andrew Curtis, head of scientific and regulatory affairs at the European Snacks Association, which represents crisps companies, defends the use of single-use plastics. “The soft plastics used in our category serve a purpose,” he says.

“They are lightweight, thus reducing the energy wasted for transport and production, they are hygienic, they comply with current legislation on materials in contact with food and, depending on the needs of the product and the choice of materials, they can provide excellent moisture, oxygen, aroma and UV light barrier properties.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Walkers said the UK will “soon be testing new packaging made from recycled plastic, products like bags, biscuit wrappers and other packaging”. The brand had already launched a recycling program in 2018, but it was closed in April this year.

Professor Miller hopes consumer pressure will mean more manufacturers ditch single-use plastic faster than currently expected.

Back at Spudos, Del Currie is more direct. “Big brands should try harder,” he says.

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