Saputo admits ‘margarine paper’ is useless – and ditches it

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/towfiqu ahamed
Getty/towfiqu ahamed
The dairy manufacturer is set to phase-out the paper covers that live under the lids of branded spreads like Clover and Utterly Butterly – here’s why.

Saputo Dairy UK is phasing out so-called margarine paper from its spreadable products this summer.

The piece of packaging is placed directly between the product itself and the tub lid, but its purpose is less obvious – and as Saputo has concluded, there’s no reason for it to be there at all.

“The cover paper is not needed for product quality, freshness or hygiene, as the lid does this job,” explained Joanna Swan, senior brand manager for spreads at Saputo Dairy UK. “By removing it, we can save a significant amount of unnecessary packaging each year from going to landfill.”

The ‘significant amount’ is estimated to be 44 tons, based on weight calculations made by Saputo of products before and after the cover leaves are removed.

As for its claim that the packaging solution makes no difference to product quality, Saputo carried out comparative testing during February 2023 to see how its spreads’ shelf life, taste, texture and smell were affected with or without the cover leaves inside the tubs.

Busting another myth, the company also said that the packaging material doesn’t serve as tamper evidence either, calling this ‘a common misconception’.

In May and June 2024, the manufacturer will begin to display a printed message on the existing paper covers to alert consumers of the upcoming change, and from July 2024, tubs of Clover, Utterly Butterly and Country Life Spreadable will no longer ship with cover leaves inside.

What’s the issue with ‘margarine paper’?

It has been puzzling consumers for years, with Internet users wondering if there’s a convention around dealing with the piece of paper or foil that’s commonly found in tubs of spreadable. Should it be thrown away immediately or kept in?

According to Saputo, the cover papers inside its spreads tubs are traditionally used to flatten the product for even filling and to provide a surface for promotional messages.

But the company has made a commitment to transition to 100% recyclable packaging by 2025, and it claims that the cover papers cannot be recycled.

Saputo’s Joanna Swan also suggested that removing them altogether would make it easier for consumers to recycle the rest of the packaging. “People want to do the right thing, but there is a lot of ambiguity and varying guidance around what can or cannot be recycled,” she explained. “Therefore, removing unnecessary packaging is the good choice for the environment. As a leading brand, this one small change from us can make a difference to the planet.”

Are cover leaves really that useless?

We reached out to Saputo Dairy UK’s packaging supplier Hovat to get their take on the story – and whether cover papers really serve next to no functional purpose in their view. Gerry Redmond, sales manager at Hovat, said that cover papers are used ‘mostly to prevent oxidization’ but did not dispute Saputo’s research into the matter.

“What I will refute however is the fact that they [cover leaves] are not recyclable – because they are, and we have certification to prove that they are recyclable,” he told us, adding that the certification also proves that the packaging material is compostable and biodegradable.

“What they aren’t is compliant with OPRL legislation at the moment, but that is not the same as saying they aren’t recyclable.”

He referenced the OPRL ‘certified as recyclable’ scheme, which assesses packaging for recyclability within the UK. (More about this here​.)

Redmond suggested that its this lack of certification that has prompted the manufacturer to reconsider using cover leaves, rather than the materials’ inherent recyclability. “I have told them on numerous occasions it is [recyclable] but it isn’t OPRL-compliant and those are two different things,” Redmond concluded.

We also learned that besides Saputo Dairy UK, Kerry Foods has also made the decision to remove cover leaves from their spreadable tubs, suggesting a wider industry trend - Redmond confirmed that sales of this packaging solution were down 80% year on year ‘and it’s probably not coming back, I don’t think’. “Whether consumers like having the product touching the plastic lid, that ‘s an issue for consumers,” he said. “But It don’t think [cover leaves] will recover – we have just closed down the machinery that we use. So we’ve moved on to different things.”

From plastic to paper

Besides Saputo and Kerry Foods, other manufacturers in the butter and spreadable space have been making packaging changes to improve recyclability and reduce waste.

Flora_PlantButter_packshot 800x800
Upfield's Flora Plant tubs are made from compressed wet paper fibres and are waterproof, oil-proof, and recyclable in local paper waste streams. CGI via Upfield

Upfield, maker of Flora, collaborated with tech company Footprint to roll out a recyclable greaseproof paper alternative to traditional plastic tubs. The new tub was launched in Austria in late 2023, with additional European markets including the UK following this year. The paper tubs are made from compressed wet paper fibers and are waterproof, oil-proof and recyclable in local paper waste streams, and use paper from a PEFC-certified supplier. (See FoodNavigator Europe​'s report​ for more on this story.)

In butter, supermarket chain Aldi is introducing recyclable wraps across its Specially Selected West Country and Yorkshire butter blocks starting from June 2024. “We are committed to minimizing plastic packaging at Aldi, and we are constantly exploring ways in which we can make a meaningful change to our products,” said Luke Emery, director, plastics and packaging, at Aldi.

Improving packaging solutions across a raft of dairy products has been a trend for several years. Manufacturers have aimed to reduce their environmental impact by moving towards more environmentally-sustainable materials, while consumers too have driven this change by attaching greater importance on packaging recyclability and reduction. According to a 2023 survey carried out by DS Smith in partnership with Mintel Consulting, more than two thirds (69%) of online UK shoppers cite recyclability as a priority for them, and another quarter would consider paying more for packaging that was easy to recycle.

The Butterbox debuted in 2019 as an alternative to 'messy' foil wrappers. Image via Arla Foods UK

Besides seeking alternatives to foil and laminated paper, some manufacturers, such as Lurpak maker Arla Foods UK, transitioned to using cardboard boxes for their 225g butter blocks.

Unveiled in 2019​, the Butterbox addressed several barriers at once, including recyclability and a consumer perception that block butter is ‘messy’, as brand manager Lucy Hurrell-Morgan explained at the time. “We know that there are barriers for shoppers when it comes to buying block butter and this has impacted on the value of the category as a whole,” she said. “With over a third of consumers admitting they don’t buy block butter because they believe the packaging is messy, we want to give them a mess-free re-closable box to help overcome these challenges.”

Related topics Butters & Spreads