One of the main 'green' packaging companies, London Bio Packaging (LBP), aims to reduce negative environmental impacts of packaging and other products. It claims a major advantage of eco- specialists is their willingness to supply small runs.
The firm supplies a range of biodegradable, compostable, recycled and bespoke green packaging - for example, biodegradable coffee cups and cake boxes made from recycled paper. Supply manager Jerome Cogan explains there can sometimes be a slight cost issue when it comes to using eco-only suppliers.
"For example, when you buy a case of 1,000, which is the company's standard case size, it may be the difference between £36 or £30 for 1,000 cups. However, many people are quite happy to go with a bio- degradable one, even if it is more expensive."
LBP also offers a next-day delivery service, as well a closed-loop composting service, whereby the products sold - made from plants - are collected after use, and returned to the fields.
Eco-packaging company Vegware, also offers a bespoke packaging service. Products in its range include sandwich wedges made from recycled card, with a corn starch window and compostable cellophane bags. "We try and make our offering very flexible," says managing director Joe Frankel. "Many products - for example, coffee cup lids - come in cases of 1,000 but, within that case, there are 20 bags of 50 and we sell those bags of 50 separately. Obviously you get a better price if you buy 10,000 cups, but that's not always what people want."
Biopac director Mark Brigden says one of the most important things eco-only companies are about is taking waste away from the landfill stream. "The problem with plastic packaging is that it's very difficult to recycle, because you've often got numerous different polymer types within the generic term 'plastic packaging', which have to be segregated in order to be recycled efficiently."
For products that would conventionally be lined with a plastic liner, such as food boxes, Biopac uses a biopolymer alternative, rendering the whole product biodegradable. It also uses a lot of fibre-based materials, produced from renewable crops, including sugar cane, bulrush and palm fibres.
In terms of how these smaller eco-only companies compete on price, Brigden concedes that it can be more expensive than buying plastic products, but says the market for these products - reflecting the eco industry in general - is growing rapidly. "As volumes increase, we anticipate that the prices are going to become more aligned," he adds. "The most important thing is that the final consumer is made aware that the packaging is environmentally responsible. It's no good using a drinks tumbler made from a corn starch and not actually telling the consumer about it."
At the other end of the packaging scale are big packaging companies, such as multi-material supplier Linpac Packaging, which has a product range in excess of 10,000 items, but says "a commitment to sustainability lies at the heart of its ethos".
Linpac offers a range of products specifically for the bakery sector, including confectionery trays, sandwich containers, films for baguette bags and high-barrier films for MAP packaging. It also has a substantial plastics recycling division. While it doesn't offer small runs, it does operate through a distributor that can offer them. Linpac's minimum run can vary depending on the product, says group commmunications manager Barbara Laing, but for a product such as sandwich wedges, it would be a minimum of approximately 10,000 units.
Linpac argues that the "right choice of packaging depends on the product and also the market you are trying to sell to". If you need certain products that you cannot find in an eco-range or are not suitable for your business, then having a comprehensive range of packaging options will make life easier.
It's easy to see why, in today's cost-cutting climate, bakery and food-to-go retailers don't want to spend extra on packaging. But there is no denying that the eco-packaging market is gathering pace, and the more popular it gets, the cheaper it will become.