‘Responsibility and Innovation in Food Packaging’ – 4 ACES Founder and MD Chris Penn Shows His Hand

Chris Penn

The entire landscape of packaging has changed in the 20-odd years since Chris Penn founded 4 ACES. In those days, the term ‘single use plastics’ was seldom heard and when it was, there was no stigma attached to it.

After years of austerity, of ‘make do and mend’, society was embracing the concept of disposability. Use it, chuck it, get a new one. An entrepreneur by nature, Chris saw the potential for disposable products in food service and associated areas and he grasped it…

It’s late November 1998. Within the perimeter of an old airfield in Harlow, Essex there’s an anonymous lockup. The door is broken, and a shattered window offers scant respite against the piercing winter wind. From inside, the sound of David Grey’s ‘White Ladder’ blares from a CD player that’s seen better days whilst outside, men wrapped tightly against the cold are unloading pallets from a truck, using a borrowed forklift, under the cover of darkness.

This is where and when the story began…

But then, around 2017, public concern about plastics pollution began to gather pace, thanks largely to heightened and emotive media coverage of the associated issues. David Attenborough’s exposé of the effects of discarded plastics on marine wildlife, Blue Planet II, marked a watershed in media, public and political attention to plastics pollution.

‘When the clamour to curtail the deployment of single use plastics began to gather place in the media, my first reaction was to defend our position, seeing as the business was founded on Polypropylene and Polystyrene materials’, Chris said. ‘We all knew how cost-effective plastics were in everyday life; but the damage had been done in terms of public perception, thanks to the constant and often hyperbolic reporting of plastics polluting the oceans. Everything, from a cotton bud to a drinking cup was seen to be finding its way into the world’s eco-system.’

It was time for 4 ACES to change; time to rethink and time to shift its focus to a more sustainable and circular solution. ‘As a business, we set about embracing changes long before the single use plastic crisis erupted, but the media impetus accelerated the process,’ Chris admitted.

Where once he had been applauded for his success, suddenly Chris – and his business – became the targets of vilification. The question he had to address was how the business could continue to move forward, while the slings and arrows of public opinion rained down on them. Would the ‘noble’ approach be that of suffering in silence, or should the business ‘take arms against (the) sea of troubles, and by opposing end them’?

‘Our intention was to remove all general greenwashing and address many of the inaccuracies that were swamping the marketplace’, Chris said. ‘We did that by focusing on specific facts provided by expert bodies who simplify sustainability. That allowed us to make claims about certain products with the knowledge that those claims were incontrovertible.’

This approach to a sensitive business climate culminated in a financial investment with German organisation Flustix. The Flustix ‘plastic free’ label is the most widely recognised registered European sustainability certificate concerning plastic-use in products. ‘We are required to send large batches of each product to be tested to Flustix and their accredited partner laboratories’, Chris said. ‘If the analysis is positive, we can apply for a licence to use the Flustix Plastic Free mark.’4 ACES

The process provides 4 ACES with unparalleled intelligence and certifications, both to satisfy eco-conscious clients and to assist the Big Brands, as they themselves focus on Corporate Social Responsibility.

‘From being sales and profit driven, we began to focus more on environmental impact, educating before selling and ensuring our manufacturing and customer relationships were buying into the longer-term plan’, Chris said. ‘Plastic to paper is a simple switch. Many of our production partners have facilities to manufacture both and can offer a wide range of products. This has facilitated our transition from maligned materials to those that are proven to be more sustainable.’

Recent years have been a rocky period for the packaging industry, during which manufacturers and brands searched exhaustively for solutions that are kinder to the environment. Chris is satisfied that 4 ACES is doing all it can to mitigate the impact of its products: ‘I feel extremely satisfied with the shape of the business now and its ongoing commitment to sustainability’, he said. ‘This is obviously essential for our customers, but equally it’s a massive boost to all the team here at 4 ACES, who are as proud as I am to be part of the movement that’s single-mindedly making changes for the health of our planet.

‘Our focus now is on future proofing our business, our offer and our commitment to the customer who chooses us as their packaging partner’, Chris said. ‘We have become acutely aware of the environmental messages, the ethical practices, the breadth of product range providing alternative choice but above all, the engagement of recycling and composting facilities that help us complete the circular supply process and allow us to join the long list of companies preparing and planning for a brighter future in food service packaging.’

As the founder of the business, Chris has been obliged to face some criticism. ‘There’s always a level of curiosity when I announce to friends or fellow professionals what I do for a living’ he said with a rueful smile. ‘When I mention we provide fast food packaging, people tend to take a step back – as though I am personally responsible for dumping plastic straws and plates in the sea – and demand to know what I’m going to do about it! From there, the conversation usually consists of me trying to realigning their basic understanding of the issues, and explaining how we are actually facilitating the switch to a more sustainable future, not preventing it.

‘Disposable packaging in food service for convenience purposes is here to stay’ Chris said. ‘Their function is to enrich the ‘out of home’ consumer experience. As a society, it seems that we can’t forego the convenience that modern packaging brings to everyday life, so it’s our job, as a leading supplier, to ensure that ‘responsibility’ is integral to our customer offer. Good packaging goes hand in hand with companies promoting good moral values, great vision and appetite for constant change.’

For Chris and his team at 4 ACES, more change is afoot as their flagship plastic free brand, ‘CUPkind’ is introduced, ‘We’re committed to providing a supply chain that meets our customers’ expectations of quality, value and sustainability, with our environmental impact at the forefront of our thinking’, Chris said, ‘CUPkind really kicks off a packaging revolution for us and its early embrace by our customers augurs well for the future.’ But that’s another story…


For more stories like this, visit Planet Vending 
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The Editor

Planet Vending’s Editor is Ian Reynolds-Young and it’s Ian’s unique writing talent that has made PV what it is today – the best read (red) vending blog in the world, and vending’s best read (reed). Ian ‘tripped and fell into vending’, in the capacity of PR executive, before launching a specialist agency, ‘reynoldscopy’, dedicated to the UK Vending business. The company continues to represent the interests of many of the sector’s leading brands.

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