Lee Metters, director of group business development at Domino Printing Sciences, insists that the “war on plastic” ignores the fact that plastic can be one of the most environmentally friendly materials under the right conditions.
Designing products and packaging for sustainability is not easy, as all materials have remarkable positive and negative properties.
In 2020, an inter-parliamentary group in the UK warned that consumer pressure to end the use of plastic packaging in stores could actually harm the environment, as many materials considered to be more sustainable actually have a more damaging environmental footprint.
Waste generation can be a problem with some plastics, but compared to other packaging materials, CO2 emissions are typically lower for both the production and shipping of plastic packaging.
Compared to plastic, although glass is fully and widely recyclable, it is much heavier than plastic and is much more polluting to transport.
Changing the way a product is packaged can pose serious risks for manufacturers, and even minor changes can have knock-on effects on production processes. This often-forgotten point requires ensuring that new material can be coded reliably and legibly with machine- or human-readable codes for as long as it is needed, while not negatively impacting the recyclability of the material.
The Negligible Benefits of Plastic Packaging
Attempts to understand and solve the plastic problem must consider both the pros and cons of plastic packaging. In 2018, 24.7 million tons of plastic packaging were produced in Europe. The reasons why plastics provide unique advantages as a packaging material are as follows:
- Plastic is lightweight – Garcon Wines’ 750ml PET bottle weighs just 63 grams – 87% lighter than an average glass wine bottle.
- Plastic is resource efficient – producing virgin plastic uses about half as much energy as alternative materials and uses only 4% of global oil production, despite being a byproduct of the oil industry.
- Plastic is inexpensive to manufacture – it allows products to be packaged and distributed without incurring significant costs to consumers.
- Plastic is an excellent barrier material – using plastic to package food can extend shelf life during transportation and storage and help reduce food waste.
This last point is arguably the most important point to consider regarding the advantages of plastic packaging. Worldwide emissions from food waste contribute 3.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year – if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter after China and the United States.
Global food supply chains are complex networks in which fresh food is transported significant distances and passes through multiple hands before reaching consumers. For this reason, it is imperative to extend the shelf life and protect the food during transportation.
Using even a small amount of plastic makes it easy to extend the shelf life of fresh foods. Studies have shown that just 1.5g of plastic wrap can extend the life of a cucumber by 11 days, while using plastic bags can reduce waste by two-thirds by preserving loose products like potatoes.
Plastic packaging recycling and circular economy
More effort and collaboration is needed between governments and key players in the plastics industry to standardize materials and recycling systems.
This includes not only plastic manufacturers and recyclers, but also brand owners, manufacturers and retailers.
Here are some key areas that organizations should consider:
- Can you modify your packaging to use less material, remove unnecessary components, or aid recyclability without sacrificing product integrity? Overpacking is a problem right now and there is a problem with packaging design that uses too many layers and components.
- Do a lifecycle assessment
- Designing products that can be put together easily and effectively, reducing unnecessary components and lightening packaging all play a part in helping here.
- Mechanical recycling of plastics creates barriers to 100% recycled content. It also comes at a price – PCR is more expensive than pure materials because it is scarce and in high demand. A mix of virgin materials and PCR is a viable packaging solution and one of the main ways to demonstrate your brand’s commitment to sustainable plastics.
- There are three basic rules to follow when designing for recyclability: Use single materials, use naturally colored plastics instead of colored ones, and use less commonly recycled materials.
Use commonly recycled materials such as PET, polyethylene and polypropylene instead of materials such as polystyrene, PVC and ABS. For some, moving away from plastic is neither possible nor desirable, but the good news is that plastic packaging can still play an important role in sustainability. For organizations that already use plastic as a packaging material, it is important to understand the options available and identify the right solution to suit individual needs
. Developments for new and improved plastic packaging will undoubtedly continue for several more years, and coding and marking technologies will need to evolve with them. Some of the risks involved in designing for sustainability are addressed through the development of laser and ink coding solutions for new packaging solutions, including recycled, recyclable and biobased plastic packaging.