Members of the Plastics Action Alliance with chairperson Aidan Cotter (centre).

Members of the Plastics Action Alliance with chairperson Aidan Cotter (centre).

Some of Ireland's leading food businesses have come together to form the Plastics Action Alliance, which aims to make packaging more sustainable.

The companies include beef processors ABP, poultry company Manor Farm, Irish Country Meats lamb processing company, pork plant Rosderra, Keelings fresh fruit company, Monaghan Mushrooms, vegetable company Country Crest, Nature’s Best salads and C&D Foods pet food company. As leaders in their respective areas, each company represents a different element of the agri-food sector.

The Plastics Action Alliance was formed in November 2018 after the companies brought Aidan Cotter, formerly of Bord Bia, on board as the independent Chairman of the Plastics Action Alliance to help. Aiming to significantly reduce their plastic use and implement practical, functional alternatives by 2020, the Plastics Action Alliance has formed in a time where Irish consumers are particularly concerned about their plastic use and impact on the environment. 

With Lidl vowing to trial minimal plastic packaging, coffee shops around the country swapping to compostable cups and plastic straws becoming increasingly rare, it's clear that there is a change underway in Ireland. The Plastics Action Alliance continues on from these changes, showing that if the leaders of the agri-food industry can make serious changes, then they can be implemented on a smaller scale too.

The Plastics Action Alliance members have created 10 key objectives that they hope to achieve over the coming years, including:

  • To eliminate unnecessary single use plastics from everyday activities across all member sites by the end of 2020 – water bottles, straws coffee cups etc.
  • No longer use PVC in packaging where viable alternatives exist with the required functionality by the end of 2020
  • Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through improved design, innovation or alternative renewable options by 2025
  • All plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025
  • No packaging waste from any participant sites will go to landfill by the end of 2020

Plastic waste has become a massive problem in Ireland. Image: Getty Images.

Plastic waste has become a massive problem in Ireland. Image: Getty Images.

To find out more about the Alliance and how the members plan to implement these initiatives, we spoke to Aidan Cotter, chairperson of the Plastics Action Alliance. He told us that each food business had been working on some sort of initiative themselves before they realised that coming together would help them to quickly produce better results:

"This issue of plastic waste has become of utmost concern for many people right across the industry, as well as consumers themselves, but here we have different companies from the food sector that are sharing their experiences with each other to reduce their plastic use. Each company has a different perspective but they’re all seeking to protect the quality of the food they’re producing while reducing the use of plastics at the same time.

The whole initiative works on the principle that the whole is better than the sum of the parts. By working together, they’re each reducing their use of plastics, while also increasing their reusability and recyclability. This way they will make quicker, better progress.

The Plastics Action Alliance's targets are quite ambitious, as they want to meet most of them by the end of 2020, which is less than a year away. Keelings are particularly concerned about their primary responsibility which is to protect the quality of food while also reducing their use of plastic. How do you show that you aren’t compromising quality, shelf life and consumer experience while also spending time on plastic waste? Each company is making progress with this and eventually, the goal is to share the experience with other businesses"

Vincent Carton, Marketing Director of Manor Farm poultry company echoed Aidan's statements, highlighting how the businesses need to figure out how to practically implement these changes:

"We’re trying to see the things that are practical for us all because we’re the largest companies in the country in our field, so we want to know if we can use or create a pipeline of plastic that we can recover. With the scale of our businesses, it makes sense for us to use recoverable products. The producers of plastic will obviously react to customers asking for a change, as long as there’s volume to justify it, which is why we’re trying to take a practical approach to plastic reduction. We brought in Aidan Cotter because he introduced Origin Green and, as we’re all members of that, we’re trying to use a similar approach to make sure it will work the Plastics Action Alliance will work.

We want to be a champion of plastic reduction, that’s what’s empowered this group of people to work together and make a difference and come up with something practical. If we went on our own, we wouldn’t have the demand to offer suppliers to help them change their practices. If we do find the solution for part of this issue, we can help other businesses to follow suit."

David Keeling, MD at Keelings.

David Keeling, MD at Keelings.

For David Keeling, managing director of Keelings, the Plastics Action Alliance is only part of how his company wants to change its environmental impact.

“We are more than aware of the backlash against plastic now, given its impact environmentally, and we must all work together to put pressure on ourselves, on our suppliers and on the government to tackle the issue.

Addressing plastic is only one element of Keelings' packaging sustainability strategy and as a leader in the Fresh Produce category, it is important we make the right decisions in this arena.  We need to have a robust strategy that we are confident in, providing a solution that can stand up under scrutiny.

In addition to working with the Plastic Alliance, we have a number of other initiatives underway such as trialling compostable solutions and switching to cardboard options where we can.  We have also embarked upon a piece of global research to explore potential global innovative packaging solutions for both the short and long term.

In the meantime, we will continue to use only plastic punnets which are made from at least 80% recycled materials and are themselves fully recyclable. We will also continue to work towards educating our consumers through on-pack information about how to dispose of our packaging responsibly.”

Clearly, the Plastics Action Alliance is set to make big changes within the food sector. If a viable option to plastic packaging can be found and implemented properly by some of the largest companies in the country, then surely other businesses can follow suit to create a more sustainable system of packaging in Ireland.