Fully recyclable and compostable ready meals
Manufacturer KCC Packaging has developed a new ready meal food tray that is fully recyclable and compostable
British people eat more ready meals per head than any other nation in Europe.
But this also creates a problem when it comes to dealing with the trays once the food has been consumed.
Although possible, it has not always been easy to recycle the CPET trays, as factors such as black ink has made it difficult to identify the trays or waste food adds contamination to the recycling process.
This could soon change with the launch of a new solution from KCC Packaging that is potentially recyclable and definitely compostable.
The company has been working on a food tray that is based on a corn starch hybrid material and has developed a special coating that allows it to replace the traditional plastic tray.
“Natural materials are great, but there is one big issue,” says KCC Packaging managing director Kevin Clarke. “The sugar cane-based material was made for the US picnic market. But here in the UK when we have ready meals, we want to pack in gravy, chilli etc and the current fibre-based trays are porous so they would discolour on the shelves from the food.
“We had to find a barrier for it, which was a challenge as covering the bagasse tray with a PP layer would make it non-recyclable and not suitable to put in the oven.”
Bagasse is a by-product from the cane sugar industry so is a readily available product that requires no extra plants to be grown. It is typically used either as a biomass fuel or in Asia and South America is often used for papermaking.
The company has developed a solution that makes the trays recyclable and compostable, and can go into the freezer, oven and microwave, while also safe for the consumer. They can also be run on existing production lines and can take heat sealed films to cover the food – he understands there are some biodegradable films on the market that could also be used.
However, the barrier that the company is using to allow this is commercially confidential.
He says that theoretically the tray could be recycled in the paper stream as it is essentially a fibre, but food waste on the material is likely to make this a non-starter as it would contaminate the paper.
Instead, he suggests that industrial composting (subject to meeting animal by-product regulations) or anaerobic digestion would be a much better option as the material can break down along with the food waste. This would also allow it to be collected by local authorities along with food waste.
“I’m really excited by the potential of anaerobic digestion,” he adds. “If you have a ready meal, and you know your tray and any remaining food will be used as a fertiliser and energy from the anaerobic digestion process, then it takes away some of the guilt.
“I’ve had some conversations with a major fast food restaurant chain about using the material so that all of its waste could potentially go to anaerobic digestion rather than landfill. This is really attractive to them.
“Another advantage is that the microbes used in anaerobic digestion will like the fibre tray to munch on as well as the gooey content of any remaining food.”
Other potential customers are trialling the food tray and he is very encouraged by the response so far. Indeed a major chain is seeing this as a great way to market its product as a sustainable option.
Another advantage is that because the trays are made from sugar cane and so therefore have a grain feel that makes them more pleasant to touch.
Does he see a day when this replaces plastic?
“It would be nice, but there is also likely to be a need for CPET trays for a long time for certain uses as they are virtually indestructible and this will be important in certain circumstances where the food needs extra protection.”
However, despite this, KCC Packaging is working towards rolling out its new food tray that will eventually be a commonly used ready meal product across the UK.