Consumer demand for eco-friendly products and packaging is increasing, often referred to as the ‘war on plastic.’ However, this overlooks the numerous advantages of plastic packaging and neglects the fact that, with the right material selection, design, and end-of-life approach, plastic can be one of the most environmentally friendly materials in packaging.

We acknowledge the associated risks in altering how a product is packaged, and for many manufacturers, plastic remains the only practical and environmentally viable packaging solution. Following our previous discussion on the sustainability aspects of metal cans, in this article, we engage in a conversation with Brian Lodge, Design Manager at Berry Global, about sustainable design practices, with a focus on the effective use of plastics.

If you are contemplating a redesign of your product packaging with sustainability in mind, we hope you find this information valuable. As a leading industry expert in coding and marking, we are here to assist you in mitigating some of the risks associated with sustainable design.

The Battle Against Plastic

In the 1940s, when plastic packaging initially entered supermarket aisles, it was celebrated for its numerous advantages – being lightweight, cost-effective, and possessing excellent barrier properties. Plastic facilitated the processing, packing, and transportation of food, expanding the range of available produce for the public. The merits of plastic packaging seemed limitless. However, in the contemporary era, consumer attitudes towards plastics and their usage have become less favorable.

Presently, challenges related to the recycling and disposal of plastic packaging have resulted in ubiquitous images of waste and increased awareness of plastic’s environmental impact. Consequently, many brands are under growing media scrutiny to distance themselves from plastic packaging and explore alternatives perceived by consumers as more eco-friendly.

But is completely avoiding plastic packaging truly the solution?

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

The Challenge of Transition

If your current packaging material is plastic, making a shift to an alternative can be problematic – both in terms of environmental impact and practicality.

“At Berry, we engage with many individuals who have thoroughly researched alternative packaging materials and are facing immense pressure to abandon plastics, even when there is no suitable alternative for their product,” says Brian Lodge, Design Manager at Berry Global. “Blaming a material is an easy solution, but plastic is not the sole issue, and an outright ban on plastics would simply relocate the problem.”

Earlier this year, a cross-parliamentary group in the UK cautioned that consumer insistence on eliminating plastic packaging in stores could, in fact, be detrimental to the environment. Many materials considered more sustainable may have a more damaging environmental footprint. For instance, while glass is fully and widely recyclable, its greater weight compared to plastic makes transportation more polluting.

From a practical standpoint, altering the packaging of a product can also present significant challenges for manufacturers. Even minor changes can have cascading effects on production processes. An often overlooked consideration is ensuring that the new material can be consistently and clearly coded with machine- or human-readable codes that endure the required lifespan of a product without compromising its recyclability.

Are we overlooking the advantages of plastic packaging?

Any effort to comprehend and address the plastic problem must acknowledge both the benefits and drawbacks of plastic packaging. In Europe alone, 24.7 million tonnes of plastic packaging were produced in 2018 [1]. This substantial figure is a testament to the unparalleled advantages of plastics as a packaging material.

Benefits of plastic packaging:

  1. Lightweight: A 750ml PET bottle from Garcon Wines, for instance, weighs only 63 grams—87% lighter than an average glass wine bottle [2]. This characteristic reduces shipping costs and enhances customer usability.

  2. 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, it consumes only 4% of global oil production [4].

  3. Cost-effective: Plastic is inexpensive to produce, enabling products to be packaged and distributed without imposing a significant cost on the consumer. In parts of South-East Asia, single-use sachets for daily purchases allow individuals with low incomes to access everyday household essentials like soap, shampoo, and toothpaste.

  4. Excellent barrier material: Plastic serves as an outstanding barrier material for food packaging, extending shelf life during transportation and storage, thereby reducing food waste.

The last point is arguably the most crucial 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 intricate networks, with fresh foods transported significant distances and passing through multiple hands before reaching the consumer. Hence, extending shelf life and safeguarding food during transportation are imperative. This is why substantial investments are made in the selection of materials and the design of packaging.

Even a small amount of plastic can significantly extend the shelf life of fresh food, reducing overall emissions from wastage. Research indicates that just 1.5g of plastic wrapping can extend the life of a cucumber by 11 days and a steak by 10 days. Additionally, plastic bags can protect loose produce, such as potatoes, reducing wastage by up to two-thirds [6].

Currently, plastic packaging is deeply ingrained in global supply chains for food, beverages, and household and consumer products. Finding, funding, and implementing viable alternatives while still meeting consumer demand is an exceptionally complex task. Consequently, the demand for plastic continues to grow, with projections indicating that global plastic waste volumes could 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

Advocating for a circular economy in plastic packaging recycling

Effectively addressing this challenge necessitates a meticulous examination of plastic design, utilization, disposal, and collection. Globally, recycling rates for plastic packaging are remarkably low—approximately 20% of all plastic waste was estimated to be recycled in 2015 [8]. As the demand for plastics continues to rise, end-of-life plastics should be viewed as a resource rather than mere waste. Measures must be implemented to capture, recover, and reuse all plastics at the end of their life, preventing their accumulation in landfills or the natural environment.

In 2018, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme, introduced The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. This initiative urges brands and organizations to collaborate in creating a ‘circular economy’ for plastics. Over 400 organizations, including Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Veolia, and Walmart, have joined this commitment to fundamentally rethink and redesign the future of plastics.

Simultaneously, the petrochemical industry globally is actively supporting the transition to a circular economy. This involves efforts to enhance the quality of post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastics and research into chemical recycling. Unlike mechanical recycling, which melts down and reforms plastic, chemical recycling aims to revert plastic polymers to their original feedstock. For many, chemical recycling is pivotal in 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,” notes Lodge. “So, mechanical recycling still has a significant 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 enhance the sustainability of my product packaging?

Transitioning to a circular economy for plastics requires intensified efforts and collaboration between governments and key stakeholders throughout the plastics industry to standardize materials and recycling systems. This encompasses not only plastics producers and recyclers but also brand owners, manufacturers, and retailers.

If you are engaged in product packaging design, there are several crucial actions you can take to bolster your company’s sustainability credentials and contribute to addressing the plastic waste challenge:

  1. Assess packaging components

Examine your packaging to determine if you can reduce material usage, eliminate unnecessary components, or enhance recyclability without compromising product integrity. Lodge emphasizes the issue of overpackaging and the need to streamline materials while maintaining functionality.

Packaging with multiple components can complicate recycling, especially when non-recyclable elements are tightly bonded to recyclable ones, making separation challenging. Problematic 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].

Lodge suggests that removing unnecessary plastic is beneficial, but it’s crucial to ensure that the alternative doesn’t have a more substantial environmental impact and serves the same purpose. Remember that all packaging materials have an environmental footprint, so simply switching materials may not be a comprehensive solution.

  1. Adopt a lifecycle approach to packaging design

Consider a lifecycle approach to packaging design beyond recyclability, accounting for the embedded carbon used in material creation. Utilize lifecycle assessment (LCA) tools and consultancies to evaluate the environmental impacts of different packaging options. Lodge emphasizes the importance of clarity on which lifecycle processes to include in the assessment and consistency in metrics across tools.

  1. Prioritize space-saving

Efficient use of space in product design and sustainability is vital, as transport costs significantly contribute to a product’s environmental footprint. Design products that can be efficiently assembled, reduce unnecessary components, and employ lightweight packaging to aid space-saving. This approach not only benefits the environment but also reduces transportation costs.

Consider space-saving designs that minimize shipping expenses for empty product packaging. Flexible, recyclable plastic films like biaxially-oriented polypropylene (BOPP) can require less plastic than traditional applications, contributing to lower transportation costs.

  1. Increase post-consumer recycled content

Work towards incorporating higher levels of post-consumer recycled (PCR) content in your packaging. While achieving 100% recycled content remains a long-term goal, adding some recycled plastic is feasible. Lodge notes the challenges, such as color discrepancies and quality differences, associated with PCR. Striking a balance between virgin materials and PCR is essential for viability in packaging.

Increasing PCR content is a prominent way to showcase a brand’s commitment to sustainable plastics, even though it comes at a higher cost compared to virgin materials due to its scarcity and demand.

  1. Design for recyclability

Although all plastics are theoretically recyclable, practical limitations and issues with separating multi-layer materials mean that only a few are effectively recycled. Design products with recyclability in mind, adhering to three basic rules:

  • Use mono-materials to facilitate recycling, as multi-layer plastics are challenging to recycle.
  • Opt for natural plastics instead of colored ones to prevent greying in the recycling stream and improve resell value.
  • Choose widely recycled materials like PET, polyethylene, and polypropylene over less widely recycled options such as polystyrene, PVC, and ABS.

Creating a pure stream of plastic waste for recycling enhances the overall quality of PCR, allowing for a higher percentage of PCR in new products and reducing the cost of recycled content.

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

Codico is available to offer assistance

For some, transitioning away from plastics is not always feasible or desirable. The encouraging news is that plastic packaging can still align with sustainability goals. If your current packaging material is plastic, it’s crucial to explore available options for your company and identify the most suitable solution based on your specific needs.

As a prominent player in the coding and marking industry, we are actively working to mitigate some of the challenges associated with designing for sustainability. We are developing laser and ink coding solutions tailored to a variety of new packaging materials, including recycled, recyclable, and bio-based plastic packaging.

At the Domino Laser Academy in Germany, our technical specialists are dedicated to creating solutions for new single-layer and lightweight plastics by conducting in-depth analyses of substrates at the molecular level. An exemplary instance of this is the development of a 9.3μm wavelength ‘blue’ laser tube designed for secure coding of lightweight, recyclable, and plant-based PET materials that do not biodegrade.

Similarly, Domino’s in-house Ink Development and Global Pre-Sales teams have collaborated to formulate a range of ink solutions suitable for single-layer, recyclable plastic films crafted from polyethylene and polypropylene. This includes BOPP film intended for use in food packaging.

Anticipated advancements in new and enhanced plastic packaging are expected to unfold over the coming years. Therefore, Domino is committed to staying abreast of these trends and responding with innovative technologies to deliver optimal coding solutions capable of addressing the latest substrates.

No matter where you are on your sustainability journey, Domino is here to provide support. Our experts are available to offer guidance on producing products that meet the approval of retailers, are valued by consumers, and are trusted by those with environmental concerns.

Are You Ready To Start Your Sustainability Journey?

[1] Plastics Europe, “Plastics – the Facts 2019 An analysis of European plastics production, demand and waste data”, accessed 3rd January 2020.
[2] Garcon Wines, “The Eco Flat Wine Bottle”, accessed 2nd January 2020.
[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.
[4] British Plastics Federation, “Sustainability of Plastics”, accessed 2nd January 2020.
[5] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Food wastage footprint & climate change”, accessed 17th February 2020.
[6] British Plastics Federation, “Plastic Packaging Frequently Asked Questions”, accessed 17th February 2020.
[7] McKinsey and Company, “How plastics-waste recycling could transform the chemical industry”, accessed 2nd January 2020.
[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.
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