From shrink wrap to bottles and polyethylene supermarket bags, plastic packaging produced by the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry accounts for a large proportion of the waste produced worldwide each year. For example, statistics from 5 Gyres, a Santa Monica, California-based organization whose aim is to reduce plastics pollution, showed that only 5% of the plastics produced in the US are recovered, while 50% are buried in landfill sites and the rest washes into the ocean. In fact, a study titled “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean” published in the journal Science in February 2015, indicated that around 8 million tons of plastic waste from consumers globally wash into the world’s oceans each year.
Consequently, many companies are looking for new materials, manufacturing methods and other end-of-life alternatives to source, produce and dispose of their products in a more environmentally responsible way.
Lynn Dyer, president of Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI), a Virginia-based trade association for companies operating in the foodservice industry in North America, explains that foodservice operators consider two key questions when designing packaging: “What is it made from?” and “What can be done with it after it has been used?”
“Manufacturers are harnessing new technologies to develop packaging made with recycled materials, or use traditional materials in new ways, to improve their environmental credentials,” Dyer said. “For example, it wasn’t until a few years ago that someone was able to redevelop the 50-year old polystyrene foam cup using recycled materials. Other companies have introduced the first-ever insulated polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and insulated polypropylene cups, while paper cup manufacturers are researching alternative coatings to replace the plastic lining in paper cups.”
Meanwhile, Alex Henige, a senior at California Polytechnic State University in the US, has developed the Reduce Reuse Grow project to fund the mass production of biodegradable coffee cups that are embedded with seeds to enable consumers to soak them with water and bury them after use. According to Henige, who has already successfully tested cups with native Californian seeds, the cups will fully biodegrade within 180 days.
Bioplastics, which are derived from renewable biomass sources that include vegetable fats, corn starch and agricultural byproducts, are gaining in popularity. Multi-national food and beverage brands, including Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Heinz, and packaging manufacturers such as Tetra Pak, have all launched or integrated bioplastic products into their portfolios. Ecover, a Belgium-based company that manufactures eco-friendly cleaning products, has developed Plantplastic packaging, which is made of plastic derived from sugarcane (75%) and recycled plastic (25%).
Currently, European trade association Plastics Europe, headquartered in Brussels, estimates that these materials represent less than 1% of the 300 million tons of plastics produced worldwide annually. But a study by European Bioplastics, an association based in Berlin, predicted that bioplastics production capacity will increase by 400%, from the 2013 level of 1.6 million tons to around 6.7 million tons by 2018. Almost 75% of the bioplastics will be produced in Asia. Europe, which is currently at the forefront of R&D, will have about 8% of the production capacity.
“Bioplastics have come a long way in the past 10 years, and now materials such as plant-based PET, which can be made with roughly 30% ethanol-based material, are readily available on the market,” said Charlie Schwarze, global sustainability manager at international packaging supplier Amcor. “We are working with our industry partner KHS, based in Hamburg, Germany, to commercialize Plasmax, a silicon oxide-based coating that can be used on the inside of a bottle to protect the contents from oxidation. The coating, which can be removed during the PET recycling process, will help us to develop products that can be recycled.”
Using biomaterials also helps companies to reinforce their branding, according to John Perkins, vice president of Strategic Customer Partnerships at global paperboard and plastics packaging manufacturer MeadWestvaco (MWV), based in Richmond, Virginia.
Bioplastics production capacity will increase by 400%, from the 2013 level of 1.6 million tons to around 6.7 million tons by 2018
“If a company offers natural or ecofriendly products, then consumers expect that its packaging is sourced and manufactured in an equally environmentally responsible way,” Perkins said. “We help our customers to use post-consumer recycled resins, bioplastics, biopolymers, compostable materials and recyclable paperboard to meet their carbon footprint goals. For example, we are helping France-based yogurt manufacturer Danone to include more recycled content in the fibers they sell, and to increase the paperboard packaging we provide to Coca-Cola.”
REINVENTING TRADITIONAL METHODS
Packaging companies operating in the fast-moving consumer goods space are also using new manufacturing techniques to optimize packaging design and reduce their use of virgin materials.
“Many of FPI’s members use lightweighting techniques to reduce the amount of raw materials in their packaging, which involves altering the design, or replacing plastic resins with renewable materials such as calcium carbonate or talc,” Dyer said. “However, companies must ensure that lightweighting does not reduce the product’s functionality, a top priority for foodservice operators.”
MWV, for example, used lightweighting techniques to remove 18% of the plastic from the Shellpak medication packet it developed for discount retailer Wal-Mart in 2011. “Our key priority was to ensure that we reduced the amount of plastic, but created a child-resistant product that still could be easily opened by older patients,” Perkins said. MWV subsequently redeveloped Shellpak using paperboard rather than plastic. “Similarly, when we developed Natralock, a 100% renewable paperboard alternative to the PVC (polyvinyl chloride) clamshells previously used by our security packaging customers, we needed to ensure that items would still be protected from theft.”
Just like MWV, Amcor has used this method to remove more than 12,000 tons (10.9 million kilograms) of plastic resin from its bottles since 2012. “In 2013, we modified the base and sidewall design, and the manufacturing process for our 64-ounce Powerblock III juice bottles – a popular beverage in the US – to remove more than 8 grams of plastic resin from the bottle,” said Schwarze, adding that this has saved 2,000 tons (1.8 million kilograms) of resin since 2012. Amcor has also co-developed LiquiForm, a system that uses the actual product – pressurized liquid drinks – rather than air, to simultaneously mold and fill plastic bottles.
“LiquiForm combines multiple production stages and significantly reduces the amount of energy wasted by carrying out separate blow-molding and filling processes,” Schwarze said. “Preliminary tests have shown that LiquiForm has reduced the amount of energy required in the overall production and transportation process by 20%-30%. We expect to launch the first working model around late 2015, early 2016.”
EXTENDING THE PRODUCT LIFECYCLE
Today, many companies recognize that to significantly reduce the environmental impact of packaging, they must take into account how the raw materials are sourced, transported and manufactured, but also how they are disposed of. Some companies have implemented a cradle-to-cradle (C2C) approach to ensure that their products contain materials that can be reused or recovered at their highest possible value multiple times after their first use. Designed to mimic natural processes, C2C aims to eliminate waste and develop products that actively benefit the environment.
“Adopting a C2C lifecycle approach offers more benefits than simply making packaging from materials that can be easily recycled,” MWV’s Perkins said. “MWV ensures that the certified fibers in our paperboard packaging are produced, harvested, manufactured and recycled in an environmentally sustainable way. We also use the minimum amount of coatings to ensure that our paperboard can be recycled numerous times, and we replant the forests.”
MWV has also joined the Carlsberg Circular Community, a C2C project set up by Danish brewing company Carlsberg Group with the aim of promoting the development of packaging materials that can be recycled and reused indefinitely, while retaining their original quality.
Amcor also uses an in-house Advanced Sustainability Stewardship Evaluation Tool (ASSET) to perform quick assessments and accurately calculate the environmental impact of different container types and designs throughout their lifecycles, before commercializing new packaging solutions.
PACKAGING FOR A PURPOSE
Eight years ago, Swiss company Nestlé adopted a lifecycle assessment approach and introduced the Packaging Impact Quick Evaluation Tool (PIQET) to better understand the end-to-end environmental impact of different packaging.
“PIQET was used for over 15,000 lifecycle assessments and helped us to optimize various products, including our Nescafé Dali pouches for the UK market and the Crunch and Galak chocolate packaging for Italian customers,” said Christian Detrois, group leader of the sustainability and novel packaging team at the Nestlé Research Centre. “It was replaced with our EcodEX tool, which covers the environmental impact of the complete product through its full lifecycle, to include the packaging and the ingredients of its contents.”
More than 30 of Nestlé’s R&D sites use EcodEX to help its brands develop the most eco-friendly products based on the agricultural and packaging materials, production processes and recovery schemes available in their target markets.
“Determining an environmentally responsible way to dispose of the packaging before it has even been designed is critical,” Detrois said. “For instance, there would be no environmental benefit for a manufacturer to make packaging from technically recyclable PET if there were no PET recycling centers in the product’s target market.”
MULTIPLE END-OF-LIFE OPTIONS
According to Detrois, designing packaging that can be recovered in different ways to meet the needs of various consumer markets will be critical in the future. FPI’s Dyer agrees. “More companies will invest in a combination of new materials and manufacturing processes, lifecycle assessment tools and other end-of-life alternatives to offer some products that can be recycled, some that can be composted, some that can be incinerated to recapture stored energy, some made from biomaterials and some that are still made from plastic,” she said. “This will enable them to cater for as many different customers as possible, while significantly reducing the overall carbon footprint of their packaging operations.”