The sustainability challenge

17 May 2019

Current customer desires, brand article manufacturers's efforts and the future of plastics.

Headlines on pollution of the oceans, a new circular economy law and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's activities have shifted packaging into political focus. In the face of mounting consumer pressure, politicians have reacted with regulations: all plastic packaging must be reusable or recyclable by 2030.

This represents a series of new challenges for the plastics industry: material composition and options for reutilization of packaging must be examined.


Trending topic: Recycling

Recycling has been a major topic for plastics for decades. When considering alternative packaging, the advantages of plastics must not be forgotten: economical manufacture, perfect hygiene, reliable safety and low weight. Achieving the same level of functionality with alternative packaging materials is generally associated with significantly higher material requirements.

Paper, cardboard, recycled materials or bioplastics are not always superior packaging solutions when looking at the big picture, taking into account environmental impact, manufacturing and transport costs. In most cases, plastic packaging performs the same function, but with significantly less mass per unit - leading to correspondingly lower production energy requirements for the packaging production and lower resulting greenhouse gas emissions than alternative materials. Reusable packing only makes sense where there are established systems for returns.


Plastics for the future

Are organic plastics the answer? Whilst packaging is one of the largest areas of application for bioplastics, they are outperformed by traditional plastics in some regards. Prior clarification of recycling loop is essential for the use of these materials, as bioplastics can incur problems in recycling processes.

Pure mono-material packaging can be recycled with relative ease, however, product durability is affected by the lacking barrier. The industry is already hard at work on solutions, and has developed Inline-Barrier-Coating utilizing Cavonium® to achieve an optimal barrier whilst facilitating recycling. Scientists are also working on innovative packaging solutions that ensure extended shelf-life of foodstuffs. Antibacterial plastics, "Pulsed light processing" which kills microorganisms on packaging, and films with reliable barrier functions are some of the many new developments on the international market.


Dreams and reality

Everyone is talking about sustainability, but it only plays a minor role in shaping consumers' purchasing decisions – functionality, quality and price are rated much more highly. Whilst two thirds of consumers believe that sustainable packaging is worthwhile, they are unwilling to pay a premium for it.

One area in which plastics remain virtually irreplaceable is convenience food: customers want practical, prepared meals because time is a scarce commodity in everyday life.


(Author: Reinhold Plot, Head of Communications, Kiefel GmbH)

Circular economy in the packaging industry.

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