Plastic is now traditionally seen as the ultimate nemesis of the sustainability movement. However, I believe that within plastics actually lies multiple solutions to pressing issues of carbon emissions and climate change. Better plastic, better recycling, and better plastic waste initiatives are all ways forward in this sector.
The plastics industry is experiencing healthy, considerable growth and shows no signs of slowing down. Advances in the industry – lower weights and higher durability, for example – have contributed to this growth. As demand for plastic continues to grow, so do a number of innovations and developments within the industry aiding in the creation of a circular economy.
What’s also fuelling market growth here is the concurrent post-pandemic recovery, which we expect to continue over the next couple of years. People were more conservative with their money during the pandemic due to overall financial instability across the globe. As they shed this attitude and become more comfortable spending their disposable income again, consumption of rigid plastics is increasing once again. We anticipate this growth especially from the APAC region, particularly as China continues to industrialize and the population grows. In India as well, the population is growing and the population is getting richer. Therefore, an increase in consumption of FMCG goods is anticipated.
Furthermore, while some may think of plastic as having a bad reputation, its value is increasing in a number of circles. The British Plastics Federation (BPF) recently published a report explaining plastic’s value as a resource and how it has a vital role to play in the move towards sustainability. In fact, achieving targets of lower emissions is nearly impossible without plastic, since it can replace a number of heavier materials that require more energy to produce. Plastic packaging is versatile, light, durable, and low-cost. In some ways, it is a more sustainable solution than certain alternatives. For example, plastic containers help keep food fresher for longer, resulting in less food wastage.
The recycling problem
The conversation about plastics is continuing as companies, consumers, and even governments strive towards a more sustainable future. One of the challenges the plastics industry currently faces is the efficacy of recycling programs. As it currently stands, a very low percentage of plastic packaging products are recycled appropriately. To achieve carbon neutrality, recycling initiatives need a massive overhaul.
However, the future looks brighter. We are on the cusp of a transformation within the plastic packaging and plastic solutions sectors. Innovative technologies like the ones from the companies mentioned above are securing more and more funding. Bio-based plastic packaging, which is compostable, is seeing a surge of popularity.
Much of the problem up until now with recyclable packaging is that it eventually hits a wall – a point where it can no longer be recycled further. But some companies are innovating within this sector and breaking boundaries:
Suntory Beverage and Food
The producer of brands such as Orangina, Lucozade, and Ribena has recently climbed one step up the ladder towards infinitely recyclable plastic. The group has been investing in enzymatic recycling and trying to become as circular as possible.
Their latest development was the culmination of 10 years’ of research. Carbios, the particular company that developed this product, have finessed an enzyme to break down any kind of PET plastic. Once broken down, this plastic can be redeveloped into virgin-quality plastic. This helps close the loop on their plastic products without needing to get rid of plastic entirely. Implementing this type of recycling system on a large scale worldwide would be a huge step towards establishing a circular economy.
Amcor is constantly innovating with its packaging products and they have a history of breaking barriers in this sector. Just recently, the company won an award for innovation for its multi-chamber pouch for drug combination products. Such devices require high performance materials because shelf life and sterility are crucial. Such a product needs to protect its content from light, moisture, and oxygen as well. Traditionally, such constraints have posed a challenge for packaging design. Amcor’s product is a pouch that features a membrane that allows drug combination products to be sold together. While this may appear simple to the consumer, it is actually an ingenious solution to a longstanding problem that resulted in frequent waste.
Mondi’s “WalletPack” replaces a non-recyclable plastic product for more than 30 different meat products from Bell Germany. According to Plastics in Packaging, the product uses nearly 40% less material than its non-recyclable predecessor, which equates to 35 tonnes per year in plastic waste. Labelled 93% recyclable, the WalletPack protects thin deli meats and features a reclosable flap. What appears to be a small step in changing the packaging of a product makes a sizeable difference in the emissions a company produces when conducted on such a large scale.
This article is part of our series about developments in the paper and packaging sector:
- What does the future look like?
- The power of paper: innovation within packaging
- Totally transparent: Glass packaging and the road to sustainability
- Tackling the recycling problem in plastic packaging
- Metal: a sustainable solution to packaging problems
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