Towards a circular packaging industry


Friday, 12 January, 2024

Towards a circular packaging industry

The European Commission’s plans for the establishment of a circular packaging economy have been the subject of hot debate since they were set out at the end of 2022, with the Commission’s proposed Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) seeking to impose binding requirements for packaging and packaging waste across all materials placed on the EU market. Nearly 3000 amendments have been listed on the European Parliament’s Environment Committee alone.

While the legislative process got underway in 2023, it is uncertain whether the subsequent trilogue process, in which the European Council, Parliament and Commission must find a final compromise, will be completed before the next European elections in June 2024. In pursuing this legislative update, the European Commission aims to achieve three main goals.

The first is to prevent packaging waste from being created in the first place by placing restrictions on unnecessary packaging and favouring reusable and refillable solutions. The second is for a closed recycling loop to ensure that all packaging on the EU market is reusable or recyclable in a commercially viable manner by 2030. Thirdly, the Commission wants to reduce the demand for primary raw materials by creating a functioning market for secondary raw materials — to this end, it will set compulsory targets to increase the amount of recycled plastics in packaging materials.

Industry takes action

While the ambitiousness of the PPWR might have caused debate within the packaging industry, there are many associations and businesses in the field that are pursuing their own innovative developments to further the creation of a circular economy. This was apparent at the 2023 interpack expo, whose theme of a circular economy drew a large number of exhibitors focused on solutions for effective recycling and the use of recycled materials in packaging production.

Recently, the association of European plastics producers, Plastics Europe, released an action plan for plastics production without fossil resources. While it may not be possible to eliminate the use of these materials entirely, the so-called Plastics Transition Roadmap shows how 65% of fossil resources in plastics production can be replaced by circular feedstocks from biomass, recycled materials and carbon capture by 2050.

“The Plastics Transition Roadmap, which we developed together with Deloitte, shows how we can reduce CO2 emissions in the plastics value chain by 28% by 2030 and transform the industry into an ecofriendly circular economy by 2050,” said Ingemar Bühler, Managing Director of Plastics Europe Germany.

“With the support of the German Government and the European Commission, European plastics manufacturers could increase the share of circular feedstocks in plastics production to 25% by 2030 and 65% by 2050.”

Reducing plastic usage wherever possible

interpack exhibitor Greiner Packaging is working to cut down on plastics through its K3 packaging solutions (cardboard-plastic combinations). With its latest development, the K3 r100 cup, the cup’s cardboard wrap separates itself from the unprinted plastic cup on its own during the waste collection process, making it possible to recycle both materials. Additionally, the company’s thermoformed cups are already labelled in the mould using the in-mould labelling (IML) process and weigh about 25% less than an injection-moulded equivalent.

Plastics manufacturers such as Joma from Austria are also increasingly developing recyclable solutions, such as a spice grinder showcased at interpack from Joma’s re:cycle range, which is made of 100% recycled PET. rPET is currently the only plastic with a certified circular economy that is approved for direct contact with food.

Cardboard packaging with barrier properties and without aluminium

The trend towards circular solutions applies to other packaging materials too. Drinks cartons are one example: Swiss manufacturer SIG has developed a full-barrier packaging material for aseptic carton packaging solutions that does not require an aluminium layer.

The new material, called SIG Terra Alu-free + Full Barrier, can also be used for oxygen-sensitive products such as juices thanks to the full-barrier protection. It has netted the company a design for circularity award from 4evergreen, an association of over 100 manufacturers, designers, brand owners, researchers and recyclers.

Driven by the belief that packaging recyclability begins with good design, 4evergreen published the second edition of its Circularity by Design Guidelines in the European summer of 2023. These featured new guidance for sustainable beverage packaging design.

Categorising materials through state-of-the-art tech

Where did the raw materials used in packaging come from? When and where were they processed, and what exactly were they processed into? Shampoo bottles, cereal liners and other packaging solutions often have a complex structure consisting of different materials.

In order to recycle effectively, businesses need transparency about the type, origin and processing of the raw materials used, but at present there is no standardised recording or structured supply of information about recycling in plastics production processes. To make this easier going forward, GS1 Germany has joined forces with stakeholders from the plastics industry to develop the Circular Plastics Traceability guidelines for standardised collection and structured sharing of data relevant to recycling. A common data framework now enables all partners involved to share consistent data with each other and to trace back the journey of each plastic through the loop system.

“At R-Cycle, as a development partner and user of the new GS1 Germany guidelines, we offer a standardised IT infrastructure for data sharing and transparency throughout the life cycle of plastics. The data is saved automatically in line with the Circular Plastics Traceability guidelines and can be shared with all parties along the value chain,” said Benedikt Brenken, Director of R-Cycle.

Additionally, German company Polysecure has developed Sort4Circle, a new sorting technology that separates different types of packaging containing polyethylene (food, cosmetic, detergent, monolayer, multilayer, etc) in line with relevant specifications.

Making film from seaweed

A host of research projects are exploring possible applications for renewable raw materials. This includes German company Brabender, which together with Dresden University of Technology is using marine algae to produce biodegradable film that simply dissolves after use.

“At [the 2023] interpack, we exhibited the conversion process from seaweed to finished packaging. Seaweed can be used, for example, to create film for packaging laundry capsules or dishwasher tablets,” said Ludwig Schmidtchen, head of the seaweed polymer project at Brabender.

As well as being water-soluble and suitable for injection moulding, the material can also be shaped as desired and is suitable for the production of sealable films. Brabender’s ‘Carraphane’ is an example of the circular economy in action. According to the company, it is produced from seaweed without waste and with minimal resource usage before being put through an extrusion process.

The film produced in this manner contains all the nutrients that are also present in the initial plant. The films biodegrade after a short time, with all the constituent components returning to nature. The seaweed material also has a significantly smaller environmental footprint than conventional plastics and bioplastics made from other renewable feedstocks.

Image credit: Burdenkov

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