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Design for Sustainability: Creating Recyclable Plastic Solutions

  • By Domino Printing Sciences
  • September 02, 2020
  • Beverage
  • Food
  • Life Sciences
  • Industrial
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Consumer demand for environmentally friendly products and packaging is on the rise and has become characterised as ‘the war on plastic’. This, however, dismisses the many advantages of plastic packaging and ignores the fact that with the right material selection, design, and end-of-life approach plastic can be one of the most environmentally friendly materials used in packaging.

At Domino, we understand that there are certain risks involved in changing how a product is packaged and that for many manufacturers, plastic is the only viable packaging solution, from both a practical and environmental perspective. So, to follow on from our previous post on the sustainability characteristics of metal cans, in this article, we talk with Brian Lodge, Design Manager at Berry Global, about designing for sustainability, including the effective use of plastics.

If you are in the process of rethinking your product packaging’s design and lifecycle, we hope you find this information useful, and, as an industry leader in the field of coding and marking, we would be happy to help you to minimise some of the risks involved in designing for sustainability.

The war on plastic

In the 1940s, when plastic packaging first made its way onto supermarket shelves, it was touted for its many wonderful benefits – lightweight, cheap, and with excellent barrier properties, plastic enabled food to be processed, packed, and transported with ease, increasing the variety of produce available for the general population. The benefits of plastic packaging were endless. Fast forward to the present day, however, and consumer perceptions of plastics and their usage are not as positive.

Nowadays, issues with plastic packaging recycling and disposal have meant that images of whales wrapped in fishing nets, sea turtles tangled in plastic bags, or remote islands littered with plastic scrap are only too familiar. As such, many brands are now facing increasing media pressure to move away from plastic packaging and explore what consumers believe are more environmentally friendly options.

But is shunning plastic packaging really the answer?

Black continuous inkjet printer code on plastic orange juice bottles, including best before date

The risk of change

If you are currently using plastic as a packaging material, switching to an alternative can be problematic – both from an environmental and practical point of view.

“At Berry, we speak to a lot of people who have done their homework with regards to alternative packaging materials, and are under huge amounts of pressure to come out of plastics despite there being no appropriate alternative for their product,” says Brian Lodge, Design Manager at Berry Global. “It’s an easy solution to blame a material, but plastic is not the single issue, and a blanket ban on plastics would just be moving the problem.”

Earlier this year, a cross-parliamentary group in the UK warned that consumer pressure to end plastic packaging in shops could actually be harming the environment, as many materials that are deemed more sustainable actually come with a more damaging environmental footprint. For example, glass, while fully and widely recyclable, is much heavier than plastic, and therefore more polluting to transport.

From a practical perspective, changing how a product is packaged can also pose significant risks for manufacturers. Even small changes can have a knock-on effect on production processes. An often-forgotten consideration is ensuring that the new material can be reliably and legibly coded with machine- or human-readable codes that last the required life of a product without impacting its recyclability.

Are we losing sight of the benefits of plastic packaging?

Any attempt to understand and solve the plastic problem needs to look at the benefits of plastic packaging as well as its drawbacks. In Europe alone, 24.7 million tonnes of plastic packaging was produced in 2018 [1]. The reason for this high figure is that plastics provide unparalleled advantages as a packaging material.

Advantages of plastic packaging

  • Plastic is lightweight – a 750ml PET bottle from Garcon Wines weighs just 63 grams – 87% lighter than an average glass wine bottle [2], reducing shipping costs and increasing customer usability.
  • Plastic is resource-efficient – virgin plastic production uses about half as much energy as alternative materials [3], and, despite being a by-product of the oil industry, uses only 4% global oil production [4].
  • Plastic is cheap to produce – allowing for products to be packaged and distributed without incurring a significant cost to the consumer. In parts of South-East Asia, single-use sachets for daily purchase allow people on low incomes to access everyday household essentials including soap, shampoo, and toothpaste.
  • Plastic is an excellent barrier material – using plastics to package food can extend shelf life during transportation and storage, helping to reduce food waste

The final point here is perhaps the most important when considering the advantages of plastic packaging. Globally, emissions resulting 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 US [5].

Global food supply chains are complex networks, with fresh foods transported significant distances, and going through multiple hands before they reach the consumer. Extending shelf life and protecting the food during transportation is, therefore, imperative, which is why such significant investment is made in the selection of materials and the design of the packaging.

Utilising a very small amount of plastic goes a long way into extending the shelf life of fresh food, reducing overall emissions from wastage. Research has shown that just 1.5g of plastic wrapping can extend the life of a cucumber by 11 days and a steak by 10 days, while utilising plastic bags can protect loose produce, such as potatoes, to reduce wastage by up to 2/3 [6].

Today, plastic packaging is deeply entrenched in globalised supply chains for food, beverage, and household and consumer products alike. Funding, sourcing, and implanting viable alternatives while continuing to meet consumer demand is an exceptionally complex task. As a result, demand for plastic continues to grow at a rate that could see global plastic waste volumes increase from 260 million tonnes in 2016 to 460 million tonnes by 2030 [7].

Blue cij printer code on clear bread packaging, including best before date

Promoting a circular economy for plastic packaging recycling

To properly address this issue requires careful consideration of the design, use, disposal, and collection of plastics. Globally, plastic packaging recycling rates are exceptionally low – it is estimated that in 2015 just 20% of all plastic waste was recycled [8] – but if plastics demand is on the rise, end-of-life plastics should be considered a resource, not a waste product. Steps need to be taken to ensure that we can capture, recover, and reuse all plastics at the end of life rather than allowing them to build up in landfill or the natural environment.

In 2018 the Ellen Macarthur Foundation – in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme – launched The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to encourage brands and organisations to work together to form a ‘circular economy’ for plastics. The commitment brings together key stakeholders from more than 400 organisations, including Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Veolia, and Walmart, to completely rethink and redesign the future of plastics.

Across the globe, work is also taking place in the petrochemical industry to support the move to a circular economy. This includes work to increase the quality of post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastics, as well as research into chemical recycling. Unlike mechanical recycling, where plastic is melted down and reformed, chemical recycling works on the basis of taking plastic polymers back to their original feedstock. For many, chemical recycling is a key factor in completely closing the gap in the plastic chain.

“Chemical recycling has a role to play in the reuse of valuable materials and keeping more plastics in the value chain, but the technology is still in its infancy,” says Lodge. “So, mechanical recycling still has a big role to play, but whatever the technology, we need to work towards getting a good, pure stream of plastics going into the system so that we can get a good stream coming out.”  

How can I improve the sustainability of my product packaging?

Moving towards a circular economy for plastics requires greater efforts and cooperation between governments and key players across the plastics industry to standardise materials and recycling systems. This includes not just plastics producers and recyclers, but also brand owners, manufacturers, and retailers.

If you are involved in product packaging design, there are a few key things you can do to help boost your company’s sustainability credentials, and help tackle the plastic waste issue:

1. Evaluate packaging components

Can you make changes to your packaging to use less material, remove unnecessary components, or aid recyclability without compromising product integrity?

“Overpackaging is an issue, and we have a problem with packaging design using too many layers and too many components,” says Lodge. “Our approach is to lightweight the material to the point where it still does its job, but the unnecessary parts are taken away.”

Packaging made from multiple components can cause problems when it comes to recycling, particularly when non-recyclable components are tightly bonded to recyclable materials, making them difficult for consumers to remove, and meaning they contaminate recycling streams. Troublesome components include silicone valves and metal closures on PET bottles, non-removable film lids, and labels covering more than 60% of a substrate surface [9].

“Removing unnecessary plastic is also a good idea as long as the alternative doesn’t have a bigger environmental impact and works to the same effect,” says Lodge. “Remember that all packaging materials have an environmental footprint so just switching materials is not the answer.”

2. Take a lifecycle approach to packaging design

There is more to product packaging than the ease of recyclability – including the embedded carbon used in the original material creation. To make the best choice, consider taking a lifecycle approach to packaging design to get the best possible solution.

Today, there are many lifecycle assessment (LCA) tools and consultancies available to help illustrate the environmental impacts represented by different packaging options.

“A lifecycle approach is definitely the correct approach when it comes to packaging design, the issue is choosing which approach to take,” says Lodge. “There are lots of different tools out there, and each industry will have different metrics that they want to compare.”

Before choosing a tool, you need to be clear on which processes in the product’s lifecycle you want to include in the LCA. It’s also important to bear in mind that different tools use different metrics and so may yield slightly different results. The key is to be consistent and ensure you are making progress in the areas that are of greatest concern to your company.

3. Think about space-saving

Space-saving is crucial to product design and sustainability, as transport costs make a significant contribution to a product’s overall environmental footprint.

Designing products that can easily and effectively slot together, reducing unnecessary components, and lightweighting packaging all go some way to assist with this. Space-saving can also help to reduce the costs of shipping empty product packaging – for example, flexible, recyclable plastic films such as biaxially-oriented polypropylene (BOPP) require significantly less plastic than traditional blow-moulded applications and can be delivered to a filling facility as roll stock reducing overall transportation costs.

“By designing products with the logistics chain in mind, you can save an awful lot of effort and energy,” says Lodge. “Use the logistics chain to its best effect. The more of your product that you can get onto a lorry, the lower the carbon footprint. At Berry Global, we aim for 95% pallet usage in our product design.”

4. Increase post-consumer recycled content where possible

The ultimate goal of a circular economy is to get towards utilising 100% recycled content, but the plastics industry is still a long way off being able to deliver on this in practice.

Restrictions on the use of PCR in food contact materials, the physical property limitations of recycled polymers, and issues with material contamination during use and recycling are all barriers to achieving 100% recycled content. However, adding a degree of recycled plastic is possible.

“With mechanical recycling of plastics, contamination is an issue; this means that PCR plastic is generally darker than virgin materials, and it’s also just not the same quality,” says Lodge. “You need to have a mix of virgin materials and PCR to make it viable from a packaging perspective.”

Increasingly your PCR content is one of the main ways of demonstrating your brand’s commitment to sustainable plastics. But it comes at a cost – PCR is more expensive than virgin materials, purely because it is scarce and in high demand.  

5. Design for recyclability

In theory all plastics are recyclable, but in practice, due to limitations with recycling facilities, and issues with separating multi-layer materials, very few actually are. By designing products with recyclability in mind, you can help ensure that your product packaging materials remain in the resource stream.  

There are three basic rules to follow when designing for recyclability:

  • Use mono-materials – multi-layer plastics are difficult to recycle, and most household recycling schemes don’t recover them.
  • Use natural plastics rather than coloured – the addition of colour causes greying in the recycling stream; coloured plastic also has a lower resell value and is, therefore, less attractive to commercial recycling services.
  • Use widely recycled materials such as PET, polyethylene, and polypropylene rather than less widely recycled items such as polystyrene, PVC, and ABS.

Creating a pure stream of plastic waste for recycling will improve the overall quality of PCR, which means that companies will be able to utilise a higher percentage of PCR in new products. It will also increase the volume of recycled material used to generate new products, bringing down the cost of recycled content.

Black continuous inkjet printer code on plastic lid of an ice cream tub, including best before date

Domino is here to help

For some, a switch away from plastics is neither possible nor desirable – the good news is that plastic packaging can still be a part of the sustainability agenda. If you are currently using plastic as a packaging material, it is important to understand the available options for your company and determine the right solution to your individual needs.

As an industry leader in the field of coding and marking, we are working to minimise some of the risks involved in designing for sustainability by developing laser- and ink-coding solutions for a range of new packaging solutions – including recycled, recyclable, and bio-based plastic packaging.

At the Domino Laser Academy in Germany, our technical specialists are working to develop solutions for new single-layer and lightweight plastics, by analysing substrates at the molecular level. A notable example of this is the development of a 9.3μm wavelength ‘blue’ laser tube for safe coding of lightweight, recyclable, and plant-based, non-biodegrading, PET materials.

Equally, our in-house Ink Development and Global Pre-Sales teams have worked to develop a range of ink solutions for single-layer, recyclable plastic films made from polyethylene and polypropylene, including BOPP film for use in food packaging.

Developments into new and improved plastic packaging are likely to continue for several years to come, as such Domino will continue to monitor these trends and respond with innovative technologies to ensure optimum coding solutions capable of handling the very latest substrates.

Wherever you are in your sustainability journey, Domino is here to help, with experts on hand to advise how best to produce products that will be accepted by retailers, valued by consumers, and trusted by everyone with an environmental concern. 

[1] Plastics Europe, “Plastics – the Facts 2019 An analysis of European plastics production, demand and waste data”, accessed 3rd January 2020. https://www.plasticseurope.org/application/files/1115/7236/4388/FINAL_web_version_Plastics_the_facts2019_14102019.pdf
[2] Garcon Wines, “The Eco Flat Wine Bottle”, accessed 2nd January 2020.  https://www.garconwines.com/packaging-solutions/eco-flat-wine-bottle
[3] Pilz, H., Brandt, B., and Fehringer, R., “The impact of plastics on life cycle energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in Europe”, accessed 2nd January 2020. https://www.plasticseurope.org/application/files/9015/1310/4686/september-2010-the-impact-of-plastic.pdf
[4] British Plastics Federation, “Sustainability of Plastics”, accessed 2nd January 2020.  https://www.bpf.co.uk/Sustainability/sustainability-of-plastics.aspx
[5] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Food wastage footprint & climate change”, accessed 17th February 2020. http://www.fao.org/3/a-bb144e.pdf
[6] British Plastics Federation, “Plastic Packaging Frequently Asked Questions”, accessed 17th February 2020. https://www.bpf.co.uk/media/download.aspx?MediaId=3112
[7] McKinsey and Company, “How plastics-waste recycling could transform the chemical industry”, accessed 2nd January 2020. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/chemicals/our-insights/how-plastics-waste-recycling-could-transform-the-chemical-industry
[8] Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., and Law, K. L., “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made”, Science Advances, 3, no. 7, e1700782, 2017.
[9] WRAP, “Rigid Plastic Packaging – Design Tips for Recycling”, accessed 2nd January 2020.  https://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/Design%20tips%20for%20making%20rigid%20plastic%20packaging%20more%20recyclable.pdf

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