FOOD waste is one of the biggest issues in the climate challenge.

But after years of research, development and investment, a Southampton company is making a technological breakthrough in what could be a global game changer.

KCC Packaging of Eastleigh has developed a biodegradable food tray to replace the plastic ones that ready meals are supplied in.

In the UK alone that’s a staggering two billion meals a year.

Managing director Kevin Clarke said: “The main thrust of what we are doing as a business is developing an alternative for a high carbon product.

“We have been in research and development mode for a long time on a very difficult challenge which is how to find an alternative to the plastic ready meal tray.

“As mundane as that sounds, it has been a big task, because ovenable plastic has been around for 40-50 years. So have been working on a product that is compostable, sustainable and low carbon. We will have spent in excess of a million pounds on developing this over the past 15 years or so.”

This product is based on sugar cane.

The biggest marketplace for the existing plastic trays is, unsurprisingly, the supermarkets and they need a shelf life of 10-14 days.

Mr Clarke said: “When you have an uncoated sugar cane-based tray, it is going to be good for a day or two at best because the moisture in the food literally dissolves it.

“We have been working to find a way of bonding the surface and we are at a breakthrough moment now. Our product performs well and to a very high temperature and still remains compostable and recyclable.”

Mr Clarke said KCC has been campaigning hard for recyclable food trays to be collected by councils along with food waste.

“At the moment the plastic food trays are mainly going for incineration. There is a lot of talk about recycling, but it is not happening to any great extent.

“We are trying to give food producers and retailers the opportunity to move off the heavy dependency on this high carbon, plastic product which requires a lot of energy to make and is of course fossil-fuel based.

“Two billion plastic trays is a hell of a lot of product that is just getting burned.”

Mr Clarke said his trays would be more expensive “but it solves a huge environmental problem or at least this part of a very big problem.

“In fairness to the public I am sure that lots of people have been troubled by putting plastic trays into bins when they are pretty sure nothing good is going to happen to them. There is a growing awareness, especially since Blue Planet 2.

“That was a lightbulb moment and day by day that dimmer switch is turning things brighter and brighter and people are not accepting the status quo.

“There has been a huge amount of time, effort and investment is solving what might appear to be a simple problem.”

As KCC begins production, Mr Clarke said it was now a case of which retailers would ‘break cover’ first and switch products.

“I think it will be like the cork out of the bottle and when it starts to flow, it will be quicker and quicker.

“The future has got to be better than the mess we have got ourselves in, not just with plastic trays, but everywhere.

There have been ongoing (but slow) discussions with UK retailers and producers, but Mr Clarke said some of the company’s first success was likely come from exports, not in the UK.

He added: “We are very proud to be supplying a new business in the UAE called Kosher Arabia, who are in a joint venture with Emirates Flight Catering.”

So the sky may be the limit for this small but revolutionary product.

A Government committee is likely make recommendations on food waste and packaging tax in the coming weeks.

■ KCC Packaging is supported by NatWest whose chief executive Alison Rose has made climate change challenge one of her and the bank’s top priorities.