I have a love hate relationship with plastic – I expect many others feel the same. Plastic is undoubtedly a fantastic packaging material – it can be flexible or rigid, transparent or opaque, it can be engineered to have good barrier properties and of course it is cheap. From a sustainability perspective plastic takes less energy to produce than glass or aluminium, because it is lightweight the transport–related greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, plastic packaging significantly extends the shelf-life of food and prevents product waste through breakages.
But nonetheless each time I throw some plastic packaging in the recycling bin I feel guilty. I feel guilty because I know that plastic packaging comes from oil, I know that recycling rates remain stubbornly low and I know that millions of tons of plastic waste contaminates the world’s oceans each year.
So on visiting the international packaging fair Interpack last week, I was really enthused to see the progress being made by the packaging industry to introduce new plastic packaging materials derived from biomass instead of non-renewable fossil fuels. There are two distinct approaches: One approach is to develop an industrial process to make a chemical precursor to plastic from biomass such as sugar cane. The resulting plastic polymer is no different to traditional plastics and could be recycled in the same way. The alternative is to develop new polymers with different properties which make them compostable, instead of recyclable. For example compostable Mars and Snickers Bar wrappers can now be made from potato waste.
The packaging market is still governed by functionality and price; sustainability credentials tend to be a nice-to-have rather than a purchasing criteria. So perhaps the most exciting innovations are in next generation bioplastics, such as BioPBS (bio-based polybutylene succinate) and PEF (polyethylene furanoate) which promise improved functionality over current materials and/or lower manufacturing costs. If the economics do indeed tip in favour of bioplastics, consumer brands could switch en masse to bio-based packaging materials.
This scenario raises some challenging questions...
- How do we balance competing demands on agricultural land?
- How do we educate consumers in how to dispose of these materials correctly?
- How do we upgrade our waste infrastructure to process these novel materials?
There is not much point placing millions of tons of compostable material on the market if it all ends up in landfill and decomposes anaerobically to methane! Although composting (an aerobic process) results in CO2 emissions, these emissions are not counted as greenhouse gases by the US EPA since they are biogenic in origin.
Cambridge Consultants is exploring the opportunities presented by developments in sustainable packaging for the food and beverage industry – check back to this blog for our findings in a few months. Developing sustainable new products and their packaging to meet both consumer and environmental needs is complex and challenging.
At Cambridge Consultants we routinely bring together multi-disciplinary teams of designers, technologists and innovation consultants to address challenging problems in a creative but integrated manner. Whether you simply want to understand how the packaging market is evolving - or if you want to take a breakthrough innovation to market contact us to have a chat.