Crunch time when potato chip makers adopt plastic-free packages

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

When Del Currie decided to give up on single-use plastic, he had a “bad secret”: he couldn’t stop loving chips.

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

He suggested that if he was serious about making a difference, he should launch his own potato chip company, one that doesn’t sell them in plastic packages.

“So I said, ‘Okay then, I’ll do it,'” says Currie, who previously worked on app development. “It wasn’t so much a choice to make chips without a package, there was simply no one doing any good, so I decided to go for it.”

True to his word, in March this year he launched Spudos, which now supplies potato chips to over 65 so-called “zero waste shops” in the UK and Republic of Ireland. These are stores that aim to eliminate packaging and instead encourage customers to show up with their own containers, which they fill from distributors.

Spudos shoppers then flavor and dress 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 headquarters in East London for filling.

For internet orders from customers both in the UK and overseas, Spudos packs chips and flavorings in packages made from a natural material called cellulose, which is derived from wood pulp. These decompose in about 45 days.

Spudos chips in one of the company's biodegradable bags

Mail order Spudos crisps are available in biodegradable, plastic-free packages

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

While most of us don’t give chips, or as they say in North America, potato chips, we think about it a lot while chewing on us, their production and sale is a huge industry.

World sales in 2021 were $ 32.2 billion (£ 26.6 billion), according to a study, and in the UK alone it is widely reported that six billion packets of potato chips are consumed annually. Meanwhile, data for the United States states that Americans typically eat 1.85 billion pounds (839 million kg) of potato chips annually.

One problem with this consumption is packaging – most chips continue to be sold in single-use, non-recyclable plastic packages. These can take decades to finally decompose.

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

In the UK, the absolute best-selling brand is Walkers, which produces 14 million packs of crisps a day. In 2018, the fact that its packages are not recyclable made headlines when environmental activists began shipping the packages to the company.

Walkers Chips

Walkers produces 14 million packets of potato chips every day

The owner of Walkers, the US giant PepsiCo, says it will switch to using recycled or renewable plastics by 2030.

Meanwhile, smaller potato chip companies are leading the way in terms of greener packaging, such as Canadian company Humble Potato Chips. It was launched earlier this year by Alicia Lahey and her husband Jeff.

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

“We created Humble Potato Chips for our son Wilder,” says Ms. Lahey. “When he was born we started hoping for a future that he wasn’t ours alone.

Alicia and Jeff Lahey

The Laheys are already exporting to the United States, despite having only founded their company earlier this year

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

Back in the UK, Herefordshire farmers Sean Mason and Mark Green launched the Two Farmers sustainable potato chip brand in 2018. They were inspired to look for biodegradable packaging after getting fed up with finding empty plastic potato chip packets on their farms.

Eventually the two spent four years trying to find suitable packages that would allow them to bring the chips to market. “We eventually visited a packaging fair and came across a sustainable cellulose film and combined it with biodegradable plant-based ink and glue,” says Mason.

“They [the packaging firm in question] it had never been made into crunchy packets before and it took two and a half years to develop. “

In the end, the cost of the finished packaging quadrupled the expected price. “[But] we are trying to give people the opportunity to spend a little more on something that is more environmentally friendly. As we increase, the costs will decrease. “

Two Farmers fries are now sold on Eurostar trains between London, Paris and Brussels and 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 were able to put their fries on the market

But why aren’t plastic chip packets generally recyclable? Shelie Miller, a professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan, says it’s because “most of it isn’t just made of plastic, but thin layers of metal and plastic.”

“The mixture of metal and plastic presents a real challenge for recycling systems, which have to separate the individual materials for recycling. Not only are the packages a mixture of materials, but the separation of two different materials on such a thin package is. incredibly difficult from a technical perspective, and economically unachievable. “

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

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

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

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Walkers said the UK “will soon experiment with new packaging made from recycled plastics, products such as bags, cookie wrappers and other packaging.” The brand had already launched a recycling program in 2018, but it closed in April of this year.

Professor Miller hopes consumer pressure means more manufacturers are moving away from single-use plastics faster than currently anticipated.

At Spudos, Del Currie is more blunt. “Big brands should do more,” he says.

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