Packaging: Safe, Smart, Sustainable

In packaging, most of the innovations in materials, recycling, recyclability, lightweight and renewable resources are oriented toward sustainability. But there are many paths. Processors, material suppliers, and industry leaders weigh in on their approaches.

Across the supply chain, innovations in packaging are focusing on solutions to improve the environmental footprint. While there are various technologies and methods available, their impact depends on the application and the context. Some years ago, “sustainable packaging” gained ground in marketing strategies of the entire value chain. But what can be considered a sustainable packaging? What technical megatrends are shaping the sustainable packaging industry?

The concept of sustainable packaging emcompasses design and material choice and structure, performance in a selected application, and ultimately what happens after the consumer is done with it. According to Adam Gendell, associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coaliton (SPC), sustainable packages must have minimal life cycle impact and be part of a system that can be indefinitely perpetuated.

Kim Holmes, vice president of sustainability of the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), says that the association is a big proponent of the sustainable material management model, which relies on lifecycle analysis of each material and looking at all the impact areas through the course of a product lifecycle to determine the environmental benefits. “The benefits are going to vary from packaging to packaging and from application to application. We encourage our members to have a holistic approach, to look at lifecycle impact as a whole,” says Holmes.

David Clark, vice president of Safety, Environment and Sustainability at global packaging processor Amcor, notes that many of his customers are setting goals to improve the environmental attributes of their packaging. In response, Amcor is innovating new technologies, materials, and life cycle strategies that include lightweighting, increasing post-consumer recycled (PCR) content, extending shelf life, and recyclability.

Berry Global also has a multi-faceted strategy that values recyclability, reusability, lightweighting, recycled content, and renewable content. “Our customers have different priorities that may value certain attributes over others. As a solutions provider, we strive to offer a variety of solutions to meet all of our customers' needs,” says Robert Flores, the company’s director of sustainability.

On the material supply side, Dow Chemical Co., for one, is focusing on packaging efficiency as an integral trend that contemplates various pillars: sustainability, converting productivity, recyclability and consumer experience. “If a package for fruit allows to minimize the waste of food, you can say that the package is sustainable for reducing that value chain carbon footprint. If packaging has an improvement in the productivity of its manufacturing process, you can say that it is sustainable because you save in production resources like water or electricity. You can also downgauge and reduce the thickness of package and produce more product with the same amount of material. That is also sustainability,” says Marcus Vinicius Carvalho, Latin America marketing manager for Food & Specialty Packaging.

 

Recycled Content & Recyclability

Plastic packaging tends to perform favorably on issues like resource efficiency, water efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions, but much more work is needed on recovery at end-of-life, according to SPC’s Gendell. “We're seeing a lot of plastic packaging that has been designed to be compatible with recycling (and other forms of recovery), but no corresponding followthrough to ensure that the material actually gets recycled. We all hear about low, stagnant recycling rates and the amount of plastic in our oceans. One of the biggest opportunities with plastics is the ability to use PCR content. It's also a challenge, because there are considerations around aesthetics, performance, and cost, but the use of PCR content creates a powerful market demand that ensures recyclable plastics actually get recycled and stay out of our oceans.”

Brand owners have shown a strong commitment to use recycled content, according to Holmes of PLASTICS. “It is something on a level that we haven´t seen before. Brand owners are taking a real leadership position in terms of driving demand and ensuring their products are compatible to be recycled with the existing systems,” she says. According to Holmes, in recent years the industry has been very active working with communities and making sure that the infrastructure for recycling is tuned and also that consumer education is consistent and clear.

PLASTICS is interested in funding projects like Material Recovery for the Future, which is assessing the potential of recycling all flexible packaging. Says Holmes, “We are working on how we can overcome the technical barriers to make sure that all plastics products are recyclable. Also we are looking to extend the tools and the availability for recovery, and not just relying on mechanical recycling but also looking at chemical recycling opportunities. We are beginning to see an increasing interest in commercializing those technologies. For example, we can find Agilyx, a polystyrene chemical recycling system, or the case of Purecycle, which is using a patented technology to recycle PP that P&G has invested in.”

Berry Global recently presented its first commercial PCR package. The application, for Burt’s Bees, is a tube yielding a maximum of 62 percent PCR, excluding the closure. This is achieved by using up to 53 percent PCR in the tube sleeve and up to 75 percent PCR in the tube shoulder.

“We found this PCR amount allows the tube to meet all the same quality, performance, and processing standards as non-PCR tubes,” Flores says. “We increased our maximum PCR percentage more than five times with this new material blend, and added PCR to the tube shoulder for the first time. This far exceeds our previous PCR capabilities and greatly increases the amount of PCR we can use in our tubes.”

Regarding the use of PCR content in packaging, Clark of Amcor notes that it dramatically reduces the environmental footprint of the package. “Some of our customers choose PCR content to reduce the environmental footprint of their products and to incentivize recycling,” he says.

Amcor joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Initiative as a Core Partner to help improve the recovery and recycling of plastic packaging. The vision of the project is to create a system where plastic packaging becomes a resource versus becoming waste. A New Plastics Economy report, Catalyzing Action, found that today only 14 percent of plastic packaging is recovered for recycling, and 95 percent of its value is lost after a single-use by consumers.

Meanwhile, Dow offers packaging converters the RecycleReady Technology, which aims to assist in creating flexible packaging that can be recycled through existing PE film-recycle streams. The program started with PE pouches for low-barrier applications like dry and frozen foods. Since then, Dow has reached better barrier and higher temperature tolerances to allow a greater variety of applications with the performance of multi-layer packaging.

On the other hand, polyethylene producer Nova Chemical has partnered with Emmerson Packaging, a leading film processor and packaging converter, to co-market recyclable prototype stand-up pouches based on their film designs. One of these projects is about to be commercialized. “We have worked closely to develop a custom all-PE recyclable pouch for a frozen pizza dough application. We expect that the dough will be packed in the new pouch and included in consumer meal kits starting in early 2018,” says Mark Kay, Nova’s performance films market group leader of Nova.

 

Lightweighting & Downgauging

Amcor is among utilizing the technique of reducing the amount of material used in a packaging without affecting its ability to protect the package’s contents. “We are continuously pushing the limits, using innovative designs and materials to achieve lightweighting and downgauging,” said Clark.

One example is a PET bottle for Vitaminwater. Lightweighting this product reduced resin consumption by more than 505,000 lb, reducing CO2 emissions by roughly 1.8 million lb. According to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, this is the same amount of emissions as would be emitted from burning more than 1800 barrels of oil.

“Lightweighting is often the preference of our customers because it reduces costs while also delivering sustainability benefits. For many products, we may have reached a point where further lightweighting could result in increased product loss or reduced shelf life. Another challenge from lightweighting rigid plastic containers is that extremely light bottles may be sorted into the paper recycling stream at U.S. Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) due to their weight. These bottles contaminate the paper stream and do not get recovered. These aspects are considered when designing products from a life cycle and holistic viewpoint,” says Clark.

Concerning downgauging, Claudia Hernández, senior development specialist at Dow, mentioned stretch film as on example. Using precision packaging resins from Dow, it was possible to reach higher levels of elongation. “The film was thinner but was able to maintain properties with less amount of product,” she says.

 

 

Biobased

Over the next five years, use of bioplastics is expected to grow by 20 percent. “Primarily that is going to originate from the biobased versus the biodegradable portion of the industry,” noted Patrick Krieger, assistant director of regulatory & technical affairs at PLASTICS. “What this really means is new capacity or new production facilities by existing suppliers, but it also includes new feedstocks and polymers for second and third generation with application in packaging.”

Krieger added that a lot of the innovation is coming from multi-laminated films that could go into industrial compost. Also, new formulations for packaging products that will allow them to be biodegradable in other contexts, external to industrial composting facilities, like home compostable or marine biodegradable.

Gendell SPC adds that plant-based feedstocks are important to monitor. “Technologies aimed at producing high-performance plastics from plant-based feedstocks are steadily climbing,” he says.

 

Protection Could Mean Sustainable

Kyra Douglas, senior director of global regulatory affairs at PLASTICS, noted that the efficient use of packaging to protect the product while it is delivered is a megatrend in the industry that has gained more relevance, for two main reasons. One is the food sector, where there is a focus on health, locally produced food and delivery of fresh products. The other aspect is the e-commerce packaging, now that a lot of shopping is done online.

According to Mark Kay, performance films market group leader of Nova Chemical, e-commerce packaging has up to five times more “touches” between the product manufacturing and when it reaches the consumer’s home. “Packaging must have superior abuse resistance than traditional packaging, and seal integrity is critical, particularly for food and liquid packaging,” he says.

Consumer awareness is driving packaging developments to solutions to extend food freshness and shelf life, reduce additives in food formulations, preserve healthy ingredients and ensure safe delivery. “Nowadays people believe that the right packaging helps to reduce food waste,” says Miguel Ramirez, head of RBL Masterbatches from Clariant in Latin America.

According to Dr. Maria del Pilar Noriega, director of the Foundation Institute for the Plastic and Rubber Research and Training (ICIPC), a lot of innovations are intended to save the food. “In the world, one third of food is lost in different stages. In developed countries, this loss happens more often at the end of the chain, in the supermarkets, while in developing countries this loss occurs at the beginning in plantations, and transportation to the farmers’ markets,” she says.

 

Through Other Lenses

“Consumers certainly expect industry to address sustainability issues, and we're seeing direct and indirect effects of those expectations. The average consumer understanding of sustainable packaging is limited to issues like recyclability and weight minimization, so we're seeing a number of brands and retailers focus their efforts on recyclability and weight optimization. But the indirect effect is important, too. Brand trust is earned by taking a leadership position on the important issues, even if the average consumer doesn't know what those issues are,” says SPC’s Gendell.

 

In this regard, Holmes of PLASTICS says, “If you look at the packaging design only with the lens of recyclability you could be missing a lot of other opportunities and different impact areas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Dr. Noriega predicts an increase in so-called hybrid packaging that combines paper, cardboard and plastic in an effort to improve lifecycle analysis and provide better indicators of sustainability. SPC’s Gendell states that innovations from converters are bringing structures that have the performance benefits of multi-material substrates—but without the unfavorable hit to recyclability that usually accompanies them. “Today we have an unfathomable breadth of material combinations to achieve the diverse range of product needs, and recyclers are phobic of material complexity. In the future, multi-material packaging might be less intimidating to recyclers,” he adds.

Adds Douglas of PLASTICS, “Multilayer film is gaining a lot of attention with novel technologies in the bioplastics space to recycle or recover it for energy. The lifecycle analyses are clear that the environmental footprint of flexible packaging is very good, so there are a lot of possibilities with the multimaterial and multilayer film.”

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