Future trends for packaging and its role in sustainability
Packaging has an important role to play in sustainability as it functions to protect and reduce waste of products and raw materials as they move through the supply chains. To achieve this, the packaging must be holistically designed with both the product and its end use in mind so that the overall environmental performance is optimised. The packaging must also be: made from responsibly sourced materials; manufactured using energy-efficient production technologies; recoverable after use; sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable or efficient sources of energy.
When considering packaging and its sustainability, the packaging itself can’t be considered in isolation. Claude D’Amico, market development manager of Innovia, says sustainability has to apply to the product together with the packaging.
“New products, including their packaging, need to be planned with the full consideration of sustainability, starting with the raw materials, through to the manufacturing and usage efficiency as assessed by life cycle analysis, including the planned recovery of all resources embedded in the unused or waste portions of the product and its packaging,” he says.
Packaging material and its contribution to sustainability
Within the restricted view of the packaging itself, D’Amico says we are starting to see more emphasis on overall sustainability rather than just end-of-life options for the packaging. “Issues such as renewable resources utilised sustainably and the avoidance of GMO [genetically modified organisms] are gaining prominence,” he says.
Packaging materials, such as bioplastics made with a growing percentage of renewable resource, are experiencing a positive growth trend. According to European Bioplastics reports, global bioplastics production capacities are predicted to grow by more than 400% by 2018, with biobased, non-biodegradable plastics - such as biobased PE and biobased PET - gaining the most growth.
Steve Davies, director of corporate communications and public affairs, NatureWorks, says that tremendous strides made in the development of bioplastics and the applications in which they are used is an important macro trend in the ‘mainstreaming’ of bioplastics. He says: “Once regarded as ‘new-to-the-world’ materials, bioplastics are now entering their second decade of commercial-scale, world-class production, and with the ‘remaking’ of some mature plastic types in biobased variants - bio PET, for example - bioplastics and plastics have in a sense converged.
“Bioplastics are increasingly seen simply as plastics with additional environmental and end-of-life attributes. The functional properties and performance of the materials are discussed first and then, as appropriate, the ‘bio’ properties where they are relevant.
“This is a sea change from where the industry was two or three years ago,” says Davies.
D’Amico says: “Materials such as bio-derived PE and PET are growing faster than those that are compostable.” He says the ‘ideal’ combination is biobased and compostable, and there are materials available from Innovia that achieve this rare combination.
D’Amico says what’s also on trend is “some sort of sustainability verification, be it origin certification - such as FSC or PEFC chain of custody certification, or other forms - such as measuring and reporting the percentage of renewable carbon content”.
“Certifications that include considerations of social issues - such as avoidance of competition with food crops - is also of interest, though these are not as common for annually harvested crops.
“The objective is not sustainable packaging, but sustainable living on earth,” says D’Amico.
When asked about how we can ensure that raw materials are responsibly grown, Davies says what is critical is that the supply chain take advantage of credible third-party certification.
“In 2012, for example, Danone in Germany wanted to demonstrate and verify the sustainability of Ingeo feedstock production based on sustainable agricultural practice for its new yoghurt cup slated to replace traditional polystyrene packaging. Danone became the first company to achieve environmental sourcing certification from both the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC) Association and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).”
D’Amico says: “Invariably, all raw materials need to either be grown sustainably or, if they need to be from a finite resource, it needs to be recycled completely and endlessly. And all this whilst satisfying the nutritional needs of the growing world population.
“In short, ensuring sustainability implies absolutely no waste - not for packaging, not for any other aspect of life’s various needs. What we now consider waste of any description needs to be reclassified as input for other necessary processes.
“Are we there yet? No, not by a long shot, but that needs to be our target.”
Re-usability or repurposing
There is not enough being done in the area of re-usability and repurposing of packaging, according to D’Amico. He says: “More needs to be done to minimise the wasting of this valuable resource. Recycling by melting and reshaping is fantastic for rigid containers made of PET or HDPE. Some flexible packaging is suitable for similar treatment via the Red Group initiative, though this more often than not is downcycled into park benches. Not yet up to structural timber replacement.
“Incineration for energy recovery may be an option for plastics and packaging that don’t suit the above techniques, and incineration of plastics derived from bio sources is even more attractive as the CO2 released is from within our time, not fossil CO2. Composting of putrefiable waste and food-contaminated packaging is not happening enough, nor is there a prevalence of the very efficient in vessel anaerobic digestion.”
Davies says there is a strong trend towards organics diversion from landfill, with legislation changes (such as landfill bans) occurring in some geographies. “This is leading to a strong interest (eg, by restaurants, entertainment and sports venues) in tools such as compostable food serviceware that facilitate and simplify organics diversion,” he says.
Standards and labelling
In the global market today there are many plastics which are claimed to be biodegradable, compostable, oxo-degradable or oxo-biodegradable. But what do these terms mean in reality?
Rowan Williams, president of the Australasian Bioplastics Association, recently discussed this with Professor Ramani Narayan, Michigan State University Distinguished Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science in the United States, a world-renowned expert in the field of bioplastics and plastics generally. An extract from a precis from Professor Narayan’s discussion explains: “Claims of degradable, partially biodegradable or eventually biodegradable are not acceptable. It has been shown that these degraded fragments absorb toxins present in the environment, concentrating them and transporting them up the food chain.
“Therefore, verifiable scientifically valid evidence from an approved third-party laboratory is needed to document complete biodegradability in a defined disposal system, in a short time period using the specified international standards.”
Davies says there are standards in place in Australia, for example, for industrial composting (AS4736-2006) and home composting (AS 5810-2010), and a verified logo scheme is in place (overseen by the Australasian Bioplastics Association) to ensure that claims cannot be made without proper verification.
“By taking a more stringent approach on weeding out unsubstantiated claims, governmental agencies such as the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) will help raise the overall level of interest in certifications. This would have a positive effect on the brands and improve industry practices overall, and on consumers who depend on these logos and standards to make informed decisions,” says Davies.
D’Amico says: “As our appreciation of the value imbedded in our organic waste is realised, we will divert that waste to more efficient and immediate recovery processes such as composting or anaerobic digestion. As the infrastructure for processing organic waste is introduced, so can the introduction of appropriate labelling for packaging begin. It needs to be an instruction, not a symbol, for example: “Please place this plastic wrap with your compostables in the clearly marked organic waste collection bag.”
D’Amico also says the design guides in the Australian Packaging Covenant (APC), origin certification such as FSC for wood-based products, ISCC+ for annually harvested crops, fair trade practices, fair produce prices regulations and many other initiatives are all gaining prominence, and collectively they assist with sustainable living on earth.
These are just some of the trends and approaches related to packaging and sustainability. From raw material acquisition to final disposal, applying the principles of sustainability - environmental, economic and social aspects - to the full life cycle of packaging, not just end of life, is clearly an important trend.
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