The topic of plastics has turned into nothing short of a global movement. As a result, the packaging landscape is changing – with sustainability and recyclability being important drivers – and with it the role of manufacturers.
According to the U.N., more than 99 percent of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal – non-renewable resources. Roughly half of the plastic products manufactured are designed for single use. And a lot of plastic is not recyclable given its complexity and chemical make-up. Slow to biodegrade, plastic has been getting into places where it shouldn’t for decades and clogging up our built environment.
The situation has brought about a global movement largely driven by consumers, NGOs and governments who are determined to see plastic usage reduced, plastic reused and made more recyclable. And where possible, alternatives made from renewable sources. As a result, retailers, restaurants and manufacturers are being asked to take more responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products, including the plastic packaging at the point of disposal.
Mass movement for change
The energy and momentum that have gathered around the plastics issue has led to an array of scientific research, product innovations, global and local initiatives and concrete legislative action – all with the goal of ending plastic pollution. In Bali and Mumbai, beach cleaning events have drawn thousands of people, all pulling together to clean up their landscapes. Bans on single-use plastic are now in place all over the world.
But despite these efforts, many of which are heroic and making a difference, what is clear, is that the problem cannot be solved without support along the entire supply chain.
Today’s plastics and plastic packaging have become very complex, including multiple layers of more than one type of material. While great at their job, safeguarding food and beverages, they are difficult, and often impossible to recycle; chemical make-up also makes many plastics unrecyclable. The U.N. Environment organization estimates that only 9 percent of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled; with 12 percent having been incinerated, and the rest – 79 percent – having accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment.
It is true that many countries lack the waste management structures to deal with plastics properly and as a result are acutely suffering from the environmental ramifications of this, particularly in Asia, parts of Africa and South America. It is also true that the bulk of collected plastics from places like the U.S. and Europe were, and to some extent, still are being shipped (largely to Asia) for processing and turning into usable plastic and products when possible; however, because so little is recyclable, many plastics are burned or buried.
In January 2018, feeling the burden of its own environmental goals, coupled with a growing amount of contaminated and unusable plastic coming from other countries, China stopped accepting most foreign plastic imports. As plastics pile up in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, China’s decision reveals to what extent this is a global problem, requiring global responsibility and ownership.
Stepping up to the plate
To be able to reuse it, we need plastics made of recyclable materials – which at the same time possess all the characteristics necessary for preserving and safeguarding products. The pressure is now on manufacturers to come up with solutions that will allow plastic to enter a circular economy, rather than being treated more-or-less as waste. More than ever before, stakeholders along the entire value chain are asking – or demanding – that businesses take more ownership of the end-of-life phase of their plastic products and packaging, including the impact it has on the environment.
And more businesses are stepping up to accept that challenge. At the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, for example, 11 leading brands, retailers, and packaging companies committed to working towards using 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or earlier, representing more than 6 million tons of plastic packaging per year.
Governments are also passing laws that require businesses to consider the product lifecycle and increase the recyclability of their plastics. For example, starting in 2019, businesses are required to register their packaging before they can participate in the German market. To be eligible, the packaging must be made with either recycled raw materials, or renewable materials wherever possible.
The idea behind the law is that if materials, such as plastics, are to be recovered for re-use, then responsibility must be placed on all producers across all industries. Also included in the new rule are increased recycling rates for plastics, which obligates city governments to meet targets by facilitating consumer and industrial recycling.
The European Commission has also passed a Europe-wide strategy to reduce plastic pollution and ensure that all plastic packaging across Europe is recyclable or reusable by 2030. Member states will be obliged to collect 90 percent of single-use plastic drinks bottles by 2025, through deposit refund schemes, for example; 55 percent of all plastic needs to be recycled by 2025.
The future of food packaging
Without a doubt, the food and beverage categories are the most challenging when it comes to developing packaging that meets strict food safety laws and consumer expectations. Whether we get to fully biodegradable or even packaging made solely from renewable resources – and at an industrial scale – is yet to be seen. However, it’s already possible to produce single layer plastic packaging from 100 percent recycled material without sacrificing quality. As these technologies improve and are scaled up, more plastic can enter the circular economy.
In our quest to identify new materials, what we must avoid, says Dr. Helén Williams, Senior Lecturer in Environment and Energy Systems at Karlstad University in Sweden, is the “environmental sub-optimization of packaging, as this can lead to more food waste.” In reality, very often the food represents 90 percent of the climate footprint and the packaging 10 percent – or even less. In the case of meat, the meat may represent 99 percent of the CO2 produced. “We need to take care of the food we grow – taking into account all the energy, water and feed that went into it,” Williams reminds us. An important message as we prepare to feed an estimated 9.8 billion people by 2050.
We need to take care of the food we grow – taking into account all the energy, water and feed that went into it.” - Dr. Helén Williams, Senior Lecturer in Environment and Energy Systems, Karlstad University, Sweden